Searching for other forms of life in the universe (opinion)

It’s been a very long year, and unrelievedly peculiar. So much so that the revelation of a Pentagon research program on unidentified flying objects (with an annual budget, at one point, of $22 million) hardly registers except as a return to old, familiar modes of strangeness.

The New York Times story about the program ran Dec. 16. On a hunch, I checked IMDB and confirmed that the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s release was just a couple of days before that -- a coincidence, but also a reminder that public interest in the matter tends to be cyclical. As are sightings: the French scientist in Close Encounters is based on Jacques Vallée, whose computer analysis of UFO reports from around the world established that they typically come in waves.

Here the skeptic is prone to think in terms of the extraordinary popular delusions and madness of crowds. The cynic will be impressed, though not surprised, by the elasticity of the Pentagon’s budget. On the other hand, the holiday season is the best possible time for headlines about UFOs. Of any topic in the news likely to come up during a family gathering, it’s the one where disagreement is most likely to remain friendly.

In the interest of peace on earth, let’s end the year with a look at the Rio scale and the London scale -- two 21st-century metrics for assessing the impact of solid evidence, should it ever arrive, that We Are Not Alone.

While similar in important ways, the scales cover different phenomena. They take as a model the Torino scale for rating the threat posed by an asteroid or comet passing through earth’s orbit. Based on the estimated diameter, mass and probability of hitting our planet, the Torino formula generates an index ranging from zero (no likelihood of collision or significant impact) to 10 (certain collision with catastrophic global effect on climate) with the intervening values expressing varying levels of risk and possible destructiveness.

The “impacts” registered by the other two scales are less apocalyptic, at least in their immediate implications. The Rio scale is designed to rate the potential significance of any announcement claiming the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. It was proposed in a paper given at the International Academy of Astronautics conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2000 and adopted by the organization’s standing committee on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence two years later.

Most SETI research involves looking for electromagnetic signals produced by civilizations elsewhere in the universe. The Rio scale defines three parameters for a purported discovery based on the type of phenomenon, the circumstances through which it was identified and the distance from which it originated. An ongoing transmission from within our solar system, detected by a number of SETI researchers and assessed as meant to establish contact, would be assigned a high value in each parameter. At the other extreme would be a short-lived phenomenon found in an archival data set, judged to be the equivalent of machine noise from a device outside this galaxy. Finally, a reliability factor is assigned to the claimed discovery, based, in part, on whether verification has been carried out. The various weightings are combined to generate a Rio scale value ranking the claim between zero (meaningless or fraudulent) and 10 (extraordinary).

In 2010, one of the scale's creators, Iván Almár of the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, collaborated on a similar index for research concerning extraterrestrial but nonintelligent life forms. The London scale (presented at a meeting of the Royal Society in London) would rate claimed discoveries of microbes on Mars, or of whatever may be swimming in the oceans on Saturn's moons.

"In addition to ranking the discoveries," says the paper proposing the scale, it "is useful to highlight and understand the types or categories of information that may be needed for further validation or dismissal of a claim." Both the Rio and the London metrics are, ultimately, a kind of peer review expressed in quantitative form, and not widely known; they lack the sensational simplicity of J. Allen Hynek's three kinds of close encounter. To knock Homo sapiens out of any lingering belief in Earth as the center of the universe wouldn't really take a Steven Spielberg light-and-sound extravaganza or the air force shooting down a flying Tic-Tac -- just a fossil skeleton in a meteorite or two.

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Theatrical poster of film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"
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Faculty trained to speak about systems of oppression should not be required to be neutral in the classroom (opinion)

People today often call for an end to politics in the classroom, yet for many scholars, this is our work, argues Nicole Truesdell.

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Author discusses new book on social science research in era of big data

Author discusses new book on social science research in era of big data.

Pitt to Investigate Alleged Culture of Harassment

The University of Pittsburgh plans to investigate the climate in its communications department after a former professor wrote an essay alleging sexual harassment and hostility by colleagues. The professor, Carol Stabile, published an essay in Ms. Magazine earlier this month, describing a culture in which professors talked about their students in a sexual manner and sexually pursued them as they promised favors or job offers. Stabile also describes discrimination against racial minorities.

“The investigation, conducted by our Title IX office, will evaluate the climate, past and present, including but not limited to the issues the article raises,” Joe Miksch, spokesperson, told TribLive.com, referring to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education. Stabile worked at Pitt from 1994 to 2005. Pitt updated university policy on student-faculty relationships in March 2017 to prohibit relationships between professors and staff members and those they supervise, according to TribLive.com.

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A college measures how much a course has transformed its students (opinion)

Social justice is embedded in the mission of the University of Scranton, based on the principles of discernment first articulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. The university strives to help each student discover his or her values, beliefs and path in life, and that outreach includes students of all faith traditions, as well as those who identify as agnostic or atheistic.

We are always gratified to learn that our students are being deeply impacted by the learning experiences we offer them. But why are they so affected? Is the key the experience or the required reflection after the experience -- or a combination of the two? Can we measure this kind of education, and can such measurement be applicable to all types of institutions of higher education?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. We are studying outcomes of an honors course that includes a summer trip to Europe and a fall follow-up course. We have found a way to assess the value of reflection and contemplation, and how this leads to a transformational learning experience -- particularly vis-à-vis the mission of our university. And we believe this kind of assessment is transferable.

The basic question is whether educators and institutions are truly committed to undergraduate education designed to help students make positive contributions toward making the world a better place. If the answer is yes, you do not have to be Jesuit or religious to tailor our formula to your institution’s distinct mission and identity.

Our long-standing Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program recently began offering students a mission-driven trip to Spain and Italy that puts them up close and personal with the spiritual journey of St. Ignatius. And we have added a fall course that is academically rigorous and writing intensive but also highly reflective.

We created the course because we realized students wanted more. They kept coming to our offices to talk about the trip; they asked to discuss it over a meal. They wanted to think and talk more about how the trip related to what they were reading, movies they were seeing, how they shared the experience with their friends and families, how it deepened their understanding of the mission behind the education -- and how it helped them learn about themselves.

Thus, we began the process of assessing one of the university’s signature honors programs not only from a hard-data standpoint -- collecting statistical information, such as grade point averages and classes taken -- but through the softer lens of personal reflection.

A survey of alumni of the honors program from every class since 1980 drew a 40 percent response. More than 90 percent of the respondents credited the program with honing their critical-thinking, writing and speaking skills. The survey also told us that alumni believe the key to deeper learning is not only study but also reflection through personal writing and group conversations that lead to greater insight.

A Holistic View of Student Transformation

We recently presented our findings at a conference at Drexel University, and participants were eager to learn more about how they might use our methods to integrate their missions into student learning, and assess outcomes. Here is a brief summary of the process we followed.

Working with our Office of Educational Assessment, we identified our program as a high-impact practice, or HIP, meaning it is rigorous, helps students develop meaningful relationships and encourages them to engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. HIPs also provide rich feedback to students to develop important skills and provide for reflection.

We use direct measures such as exams, essays, papers, projects and portfolios. In this course, we also assigned students to create a PowerPoint presentation on the trip’s connection to our mission. Students presented this in class and across the campus and even produced a documentary film.

The key was linking these direct measures with the goal of transformative learning, so we measured student understanding of our mission before and after the trip and course. We found that their understanding had been advanced, and that was exciting, since evidence of transformation typically is indirect.

We also did use indirect measures like student attitudes, perceptions, values and feelings, which also capture transformational outcomes. The documentary and PowerPoint presentations were both direct and indirect measures, since they included interviews with students who were expressing how their perspectives changed as a result of the experience.

In addition, we encouraged students to keep journals, so they could review the trip prior to class, which enriched class discussions. After class, they were encouraged to record new insights.

One student wrote that he finally grasped what social justice was, and he was moved to discern an appropriate personal response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Another wrote that her understanding and appreciation of the Jesuit mission in education started with the trip and came together in the companion course, and that the university’s mission had become her personal mission in life.

We also interviewed each student to help them process and express what they had experienced. In all, we gathered what we believe was a holistic view of not only student learning and achievement but, moreover, of student transformation, as well.

We are conducting comparative analysis, too, through pre- and posttrip surveys, and we’ve found that students in the first survey were tentative about sharing Jesuit values, while the posttrip surveys show that students have come to embrace those values personally.

We have also found that the trip and course have influenced faculty members, too. In one instance, English literature, philosophy and theology professors linked courses in their disciplines to show students how the subject matter in each could be bridged with common themes.

An academic course that is also transformative might make some educators and institutions uneasy about considering adopting our approach. Some might think that transformation only belongs in institutions with religious identities or military academies.

We beg to differ. Transformation is a natural expression of an institution’s commitment to its mission and identity. Secular institutions are committed to values like civic engagement, leadership in a global context or a diverse and inclusive culture of learning, innovation and discovery. Why not infuse that commitment into undergraduate learning?

Rebecca Haggerty is assistant dean of assessments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Scranton, and Daniel Haggerty is professor of philosophy and director of the Special Liberal Arts Honors Program.

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Sanctuary of Ignatius of Loyola in Spain
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A robot goes to college

Humanoid robot completes course in philosophy of love in what is purportedly a world first.

A professor resists departmental attempt to add a female author to class reading list for sake of gender balance

A departmental committee told a professor he had to teach Judith Butler in his class in the name of gender balance. He refused. As for Butler, she doesn’t want her work forced on him.

French professors protest article on France, Islamism


Paper in The French Review titled “Islamism’s Conquest of the French Republic” draws outcry, not only on charges of Islamophobia, but on its scholarly merit. An editor who joined in criticism is fired.

Institutional Impacts of Non-Tenure-Track Hiring

A new TIAA analysis of 12 years of federal and other data from 1,200 institutions finds that increased hiring of professors off the tenure track has had no significant effect on enrollment. Higher levels of non-tenure-track faculty employment were associated with lower application volume at private baccalaureate institutions, however, along with lower graduation rates at private research universities and lower net revenues for public baccalaureates. The study also involved interviews with institutional leaders and others.

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New study of economics professors says their research declines in quality, quantity in years after tenure


New study of economics professors' research effort and impact says they're not exactly "swinging for the fences" after getting tenure.


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