In today’s Academic Minute, Anthony Jack of Case Western Reserve University explains why it’s hard to be analytical and empathetic at the same time. Learn more about the Academic Minute (and listen to the podcasts published over the holiday break) here.
As politicians try to avert the fiscal cliff, Lake Superior State University wants to ban it -- the phrase at least. "Fiscal cliff" tops the university's 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The university's press release states: "If Congress acts to keep the country from tumbling over the cliff, LSSU believes this banishment should get some of the credit."
Other words and phrases banned are:
Kick the can down the road
The rationales for the bans -- announced each year on New Year's Eve -- may be found here. Previous lists (and a place to submit a word to ban) may be found here.
President Obama on Friday named 12 scientists as winners of the National Medal of Science. The honor was created in 1959 and annually salutes excellence in chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, or the biological, behavioral/social and physical sciences. This year's winners and their institutions:
Allen Bard, University of Texas at Austin
Sallie Chisholm, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Sidney Drell, Stanford University
Sandra Faber, University of California at Santa Cruz
Sylvester James Gates, University of Maryland at College Park
Solomon Golomb, University of Southern California
John Goodenough, University of Texas at Austin
M. Frederick Hawthorne, University of Missouri at Columbia
Leroy Hood, Institute for Systems Biology in Washington State
Barry Mazur, Harvard University
Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University
Anne Treisman, Princeton University
President Obama also named individuals, a team and a company as winners of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation
Frances Arnold, California Institute of Technology
George Carruthers, U.S. Naval Research Lab
Robert Langer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Norman McCombs, AirSep Corporation
Gholam Peyman, Arizona Retinal Specialists
Art Rosenfeld, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Jan Vilcek, New York University Langone Medical Center
Team: Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan and James Wynne, all from the IBM Corporation
James E. Hunton, a prominent accounting professor at Bentley University, has resigned amid an investigation of the retraction of an article of which he was the co-author, The Boston Globe reported. A spokeswoman cited "family and health reasons" for the departure, but it follows the retraction of an article he co-wrote in the journal Accounting Review. The university is investigating the circumstances that led to the journal's decision to retract the piece.
Writing about music, the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. The implication is that even trying is futile and likely to make the person doing so look absurd.
The line has been attributed to various musicians over the years – wrongly, as it happens, though understandably, given how little of what they do while playing can be communicated in words to people who don’t know their way around an instrument. I don’t know if mathematicians have an equivalent proverb, but the same principle applies. Even more strictly, perhaps, since most nonmathematicians can’t even tell when things go out of tune. And in many of the higher realms, math drifts far from any meaning that could ever be expressed outside whatever latticework of symbols has been improvised for the occasion. (Kind of like if Sun Ra went back to performing on his home planet.)
Against all odds, however, there is good writing about music – as well as The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012, the third anthology that Mircea Pitici has edited for Princeton University Press in as many years. He is working toward a Ph.D. in mathematical education at Cornell University, and teaches math and writing there and at Ithaca College. A majority of the pieces come from journals such as Science, Nature, The Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society and The South African Journal of Philosophy, or from volumes of scholarly papers. But among the outliers is an article from The Huffington Post, as well as a chapter reprinted from an anthology called Dating Philosophy for Everyone: Flirting With the Big Ideas (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
There’s also a paper from the proceedings of the Fifth International Meeting of Origami Science, Mathematics, and Education, which opens with the sentence: “The field of origami tessellations has seen explosive growth over the past 20 years.”
Chances are you did not know that. It came as news to me, anyway, and I cannot claim to have followed every step of the presentation, which concerns the algorithms for creating fantastically intricate designs (resembling woven cloth) out of single flat, uncut sheet of paper.
The author, Robert J. Lang, is a retired specialist in lasers and optoelectronics; his standards of numeracy are a few miles above the national average, even if the math he’s using is anything but stratospheric. But Lang is also an internationally exhibited origami artist. The images of his work accompanying the article offer more than proof of what his formulas and diagrams can produce; they are elegant in a way that hints at the satisfaction the math itself must have yielded as he worked it out.
Other papers make similar connections between mathematics and photography, dance, and (of course) music. But one of the themes turning up in various selections throughout the book is the specificity of what could be called mathematical pleasure itself, which can’t really be compared to other kinds of aesthetic experience.
In his essay “Why is There Philosophy of Mathematics at All?" Ian Hacking -- retired from a university professorship at the University of Toronto – considers the hold that math has had on the imagination and arguments of (some) philosophers. Not all have been susceptible, of course. Among humans, “a high degree of linguistic competence is [almost] universally acquired early in life,” the ability “for even modestly creative uses of mathematics is not widely shared among humans, despite our forcing the basics on the young.” And as with the general population, so among philosophers.
But those who have thought carefully about mathematics (e.g., Plato and Husserl) or even contributed to its development (Descartes and Leibniz) share something that Hacking describes this way:
“[T]hey have experienced mathematics and found it passing strange. The mathematics that they have encountered has felt different from other experiences of observing, learning, discovering, or simply ‘finding out.’ This difference is partly because the gold standard for finding out in mathematics is demonstrative proof. Not, of course, any old proof, for the most boring things can be proven in the most boring ways. I mean proofs that deploy ideas in unexpected ways, proofs that can be understood, proofs that embody ideas that are pregnant with further developments…. Most people do not respond to mathematics with such experiences or feelings; they really have no idea what is moving those philosophers.”
Beyond the pleasure of proof (“Eureka!”) lies unfathomable mystery – of at least a couple of varieties. One is the problem addressed in “Is Mathematics Discovered or Invented?” by Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Be careful how you answer that question, since the nature of reality is at stake: “If mathematics is discovered, then it would appear that there is something out there that mathematicians are discovering, which in turn would appear to lend support to a Platonist conception of mathematics….”
Or to put it another way and leave Plato out of it for a moment: If “there is something out there that mathematicians are discovering,” then just exactly where is “out there”? Answering “the universe” is dodging the question. We might naively think of arithmetic or even some parts of geometry as some kind of generalization from observed phenomena, But nobody has empirical knowledge of a seven-dimensional hypersphere. So how – or again, perhaps more pertinently, where, in what part of reality – does the hypersphere exist, such that mathematicians have access to it?
A neurobiological argument could be made that the higher mathematical concepts exist in certain cognitive modules found in the brain. (And not in everyone’s, suggests Hacking’s essay.) If so, it would make sense to say that such concepts are created. But if so, the mystery only deepens. Scientists have repeatedly found the tools for understanding the physical universe in extremely complex and exotic forms of mathematics developed by pure mathematicians who not only have no interest in finding a practical application for their work, but feel a bit sullied when one is found.
Translating math’s hieroglyphics into English prose is difficult but – as the two dozen pieces reprinted in Best Writing show – not always completely impossible. Mircea Pitici, the editor, pulls together work at various levels of complexity and from authors who pursue their subjects from a number of angles: historical or biographical narrative, philosophical speculation both professional and amateur, journalistic commentary on the state of math education and its discontents.
And the arrangement of the material is, like the selection, intelligent and even artful. Certain figures (the 19-century mathematicians Augustus de Morgan and William Hamilton) and questions (including those about math as experience and mystery) weave in and out of the volume -- making it more unified than “best of” annuals tend to be.
That said, I am dubious about there being a Best Writing ’13 given the dire implications of certain discoveries (or whatever) by Mayan numerologists. This will be the last Intellectual Affairs column for 2012, if not for all time. I’d prefer to think that, centuries ago, someone forgot to carry a digit, in which case the column will return in the new year. And if not, happy holidays even so.
Manoj Patankar has resigned as vice president for academic affairs at Saint Louis University, but his departure from the administration hasn't resolve tensions with faculty members and students who have been demanding his ouster and that of the Rev. Lawrence H. Biondi, the president, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Patankar's plans for a post-tenure review system that many faculty members viewed as the de facto elimination of tenure set off much of the current controversy, but many professors and students have other grievances about Father Biondi, whom they say has cut them off from meaningful roles in campus governance. Indeed the response of the Facebook group "SLU Students for No Confidence" was "This is only a small step, but a positive one. Our real grievances are with Father Biondi."
Fifteen years ago, my attendance policy in media ethics class was considered so unusual that The Chronicle of Higher Education did a news story about it, titled, "Ohio U. Professor Will Take Any Excuse for Students' Absences."
The article, still online, shared my reason for accepting any excuse, as long as a test or project was not scheduled for that day. I wanted students to assess their priorities. What was more important — attending class, or nursing a hangover from a Thursday night on the town?
I continued to teach at Ohio until 2003, when I became director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. My contract was entirely administrative. In other words, I did not teach a class again until the fall 2012 semester, when I took over the media ethics class of a faculty member who passed away suddenly. (See the essay "24 Hours" in Inside Higher Ed.)
More on classroom absences momentarily.
As an administrator, on a few occasions, I had to cope not only with stringent attendance policies of faculty but also their own attendance in assigned classes.
Case in point: In 2009, my administrative team began to see declining enrollments in our degree programs in advertising and journalism and mass communication. We identified two primary causes for the drop in pre-majors. We were requiring an "English Usage Test" before students could become our majors, and it seemed that students were not getting sufficient instruction in high school on grammar, spelling and syntax — essential in our disciplines.
Then we discovered the attendance policy in our required orientation class. Students failed the course if they missed one, yes one, class.
We changed that attendance policy in 2010.
As director, I have had to take action on occasion when instructors cancel too many classes. Official Iowa State policy states that faculty members are "required to be on duty during the academic year on those days when classes are in session." Professors may arrange for others to manage their responsibilities when they are away from campus while classes are in session.
However, before professors can take time off for personal or professional reasons, they are expected to fill out a form specifying dates they will be gone and how their courses and other obligations will be covered.
Of course, accidents, emergencies and illness can strike without warning. In those cases, we ask that the instructor contact the main office so we can post information on classroom doors or arrange for others to take over classes.
We do not police these policies, but we do expect faculty to adhere to them. You may want to consider that level of trust with your students.
After taking over our media ethics class, with one day’s preparation, I had to create a new syllabus within hours. That’s when I decided to implement the attendance policy that attracted so much attention at Ohio University in 1997.
Here’s an excerpt:
You can miss as many lectures as you like, as long as an exam or project is not due that day. Simply write a brief e-mail to me explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment – don’t explain symptoms). Send the e-mail to me before you miss the scheduled lecture or deliver it within 24 hours. Note: Title your absence email "462 Absence."
The attendance policy also has a section for late and early departures from class. Nothing can be more disturbing to the instructor or the class as a tardy student clumsily opening the door during lecture or a student leaving before the lecture ends. The latter also suggests something the teacher said was so disturbing that students just had to leave when they really only had to relieve themselves.
So I designate a row of chairs near the exit as "liberty seats," meaning students may come and go as they please if they sit in that row.
But what about students who violate the attendance or seating policy? Again, an excerpt from the syllabus:
Failure to Follow Attendance Rules: If you miss a class without e-mailing an excuse letter, your final grade will drop by 50 points out of 1000 for each occurrence. If you come late or leave early, without taking a reserved seat in the back row near the rear exit – and then fail to write an email explaining why you had to leave — your grade also will drop by 50 points for each occurrence.
How will I know who’s who, who’s lying and more, if I don’t also take roll? Well, I can download photos of my students from the registrar’s office so that I can identify them if I have to over time. In other words, students may be able to get away with skipping class and not emailing me initially — which only encourages future infractions — but sooner or later I catch up with them and their lies.
And remember, this is a media ethics class. If you lie in any ethics class, you go to hell — literally, I tell them.
But the best part of the attendance policy is compiling the class report detailing just why students miss class.
Here are a few examples, names withheld, of course, from last semester’s ethics class:
It just so happens, tomorrow is my birthday. Not just any birthday you see, and I know you like us to be honest; it’s my 21st ... at midnight, tonight. I should also add, I am a senior and the last person I know to turn 21. So, I have this weird feeling that tomorrow's 9 a.m. class is going to come up and hit me like a brick wall. I don't think I'll make it, but hey, you never know! I could rally!
*** Professor Bugeja,
I was absent for 462 yesterday and here’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. While I was walking to class, a raccoon was in my path that was squirming and running around. I knew something was wrong since it was out in the daylight, so I called animal control. They asked me to keep an eye on it so it wouldn’t run away (although I’m not sure how much help I would have been if it had). By the time the animal control woman arrived, I was 30 minutes late for class with a 10-minute walk ahead of me. I didn’t want to be rude and show up that late, so I didn’t come into class.
As a final gesture to students, I post a chart that summarizes why they missed class and why others who had taken the class previously also missed. Categories include:
Career-related conflicts: Working for a student media outlet or part-time job.
Academic-related conflicts: Working for other classes or student organizations, sororities, fraternities, etc.
Family-related conflicts: Dealing with emergencies, weddings, outings.
Romance-related conflicts: Indulging in Valentine’s Day, excursions, rendezvous.
Health-related conflicts: Dealing with illness or honoring medical/dental appointments.
Overslept: Falling asleep in rooms, newsrooms, etc.
Funeral: Coping with death of parents, relatives, friends, associates.
What surprised me was how reasons for missing class at Iowa State in 2012 were so similar to reasons at Ohio in 1992-2003. The world has changed so much since then, especially in the digital classroom. Nobody missed class because of Facebook, for instance. In fact, the only technology-related absence concerned a student missing class from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2 to attend a Microsoft conference in Seattle.
To view reasons for missing class in a downloadable chart, click here.
Also consider this: Stringent attendance policies may be necessary in small workshops, labs or other group-related classes. I get that. I also know we’re very good at finding reasons why students should attend our classes but usually not very informed about why they actually skip.
In the end, it’s their tuition dollar and their grade.
As I explained to my class, my attendance policy may look lenient at first blush, but I also can document that students with the fewest absences also almost always boast the highest grades. There is a correlation there, and I have the data to prove it.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.