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Academic Minute: Analyzing Big Data

In today’s Academic Minute, Brian Lowe of the State University of New York at Oneonta explains why Big Data is becoming a focus of academic inquiry. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Millikin U. Stands Behind Prof Who, at 15, Killed Family

Millikin University, in Illinois, is standing behind a psychology professor whose past has become the focus of press attention in Illinois and in Texas, The Chicago Tribune reported. An article that appeared last week in The Georgetown Advocate asked "What Happened to Jim Wolcott?" That's the name of a 15-year-old who in 1967 killed his father (a professor at Southwestern University), mother and sister at their home in Georgetown, Texas. The shootings took place after Wolcott, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had sniffed glue. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was institutionalized for six years. He then went on to higher education, earning a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and becoming a psychology professor and chair of behavioral sciences at Millikin -- under the name James St. James.

According to a statement from Millikin to the Tribune, the university only recently learned of the past of St. James. "Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James' efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable. The university expects Dr. St. James to teach at Millikin this fall," the statement said. St. James declined to comment to the Tribune except to say that he planned to return to work.

 

 

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Instructor Drops Plans to Continue Course on Porn

Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches history and women's studies at Pasadena City College, is dropping his controversial course on pornography, The Pasadena Star-News reported. Schwyzer said that his online activities have been so controversial (he has until now written regularly on sex and gender issues) that he needs to step back and focus on his family. He said this was especially important because he recently had an affair. The controversial course is about pornography, and Schwyzer clashed with administrators over his guest lecturers (some of whom are stars in the adult film industry). He told the Star-News he didn't want a repeat of the hostility from administrators toward his course. "I'm exhausted by threats and controversy," Schwyzer said. "I need a break."

 

Controversy Continues Over Gay Parenting Study

More than a year after its initial publication in Social Science Research, the debate over a controversial study concluding that children with parents who are gay are in some ways less successful as adults than their peers lives on – and is now directed at the journal’s editor.

In a post to his blog, Family Inequality, Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, calls for editor James Wright, professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida, to step down. Cohen says he’ll boycott the journal as a contributor and reviewer until Wright leaves the Elsevier publication and urges others to do so.

Cohen says that Wright relied on paid consultants on the New Family Structures Study for peer reviews and didn’t disclose that when the article was first published in June 2012. He bases his argument in part on the fact that Paul Amato, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, has said publicly that he consulted the study’s author, Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, for two days early on in the project.

Amato says in a recent post to Cohen’s blog that he disclosed that information to Wright, but Wright asked him to proceed with his review. However, Amato says his role in the study did not pose a conflict of interest, and he has reviewed other studies with which he has had some involvement. If there's no self-reported conflict, he says, journal editors in his experience don't care -- in part because reviewers are hard to come by.

It’s also been alleged that W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia with former ties to the conservative Witherspoon Institute that funded the study, served as a reviewer. He also consulted on the study, according to documents made public by the University of Texas. Wilcox, who also serves on the journal’s editorial board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an e-mail, Wright said he has never publicly disclosed who reviewed the articles and doesn’t plan to. But he said that both “Amato and Wilcox mentioned their prior involvement with the Regnerus study in response to my initial reviewing request.  I asked, as I always do, whether this involvement precluded their writing an objective review. Both said no and so both were asked to proceed.”

Wright did not respond to a question about stepping down as editor. But he said there are no plans to retract the article, for which some, including Cohen, have called.

“[That] to my mind would require proof of fraudulent behavior, cooking the data, faking the analysis or something similar, none of which (so far as I know) has even been alleged, much less shown,” Wright said.

But Cohen said that instead of “seriously reviewing the paper, he essentially whispered into an echo chamber of backers and consultants, ‘We should publish this, right?’”

The criticism of Regnerus’s study came hard and fast and prompted a commentary package in the November issue of Social Science Research and an investigation by the University of Texas. Many said it was “bad science,” a poorly designed study that proved only what sociology already had established: that children from unstable homes have higher problem profiles later in life than children from stable, two-parent homes. Because many parents of children in the study had conceived their children in heterosexual relationships that ended when or before they came out as gay, the study did not have proper controls for studying the true effects of having parents who are gay, critics said.

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Former Purdue President Nominated as NSF Director

President Obama on Wednesday nominated France Anne Córdova as director of the National Science Foundation. Córdova has previously served as president of Purdue University, chancellor of the University of California at Riverside and as chief scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

 

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Presidents Call for Action on 'Innovation Deficit'

The presidents of 165 universities issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on President Obama and Congress to deal with the "innovation deficit" facing the country. "Our nation’s role as the world’s innovation leader is in serious jeopardy. The combination of eroding federal investments in research and higher education, additional cuts due to sequestration, and the enormous resources other nations are pouring into these areas is creating a new kind of deficit for the United States: an innovation deficit. Closing this innovation deficit—the widening gap between needed and actual investments — must be a national imperative," says the letter. "The path for resolving appropriations, the debt limit, and a potential long-term budget agreement this fall is unclear. What should be clear is that the answer to our nation’s fiscal woes must include sustained strategic federal investments in research and student financial aid to close the innovation deficit and bolster our nation’s economic and national security for decades to come."

The letter was coordinated by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

 

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Academic Minute: Expanding the Lyme Disease Zone

In today’s Academic Minute, Kerry Clark of the University of North Florida explains why Lyme disease is becoming a threat in areas beyond the northeastern United States. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Essay on how new faculty members can make sense of administrators

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New faculty members learn quickly how to make fun of the administration, but they need to know what key people do, and how they may affect their careers, writes Nate Kreuter.

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A Portrait of Adjuncts in History

The Organization of American Historians has released a report on the historians who were part of a large study released by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce last year about faculty members off the tenure track. Among other things, the study found that historians were more likely than other adjuncts to view college teaching as their primary job, and to have hope of full-time or tenure-track work.

 

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Review of Susan P. Mattern, "The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire"

Intellectual Affairs

For thousands of years, the treatment of illness involved some combination of superstition, trial-and-error, inadvertent torture, and just plain dumb luck. A treatment counted as effective if the patient survived.

Whatever doctors were doing before the middle of the 19th century, it’s hard to consider it medicine – certainly not by the standards of the 150 years or so since the advent of local anesthesia. Physicians have understood the principles of antisepsis for about as long, while aspirin was synthesized only in 1897. We are spoiled. Not for us the clinical technique of Theodoric of York -- the medieval practitioner Steve Martin used to play in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch – whose treatment for every condition included the draining of excess blood.

Comforting one patient’s mother, Theodoric reminds her of how far the healing arts had advanced as of 1303: “Why, just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft,” he tells her. “But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

Insofar as Theodoric and his colleagues brought any book-learning to their practice, it came from the pen of the Greco-Roman philosopher and physician Galen, born circa 130 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Susan P. Mattern, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, does not exaggerate in calling her biography The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press). His posthumous career was, if anything, one of almost regal authority.

An earned authority, just to be clear about it. Galen had an ego the size of the Empire itself. He never tired of pointing out the abject ignorance of other physicians, and was prone to quoting tributes by illustrious people to his own erudition and skill. It is not charming. But Mattern shows Galen to have been tireless as both a practitioner and a scholar -- and his output of treatises, case histories, popular textbooks, and editions of Hippocrates and other medical authors was astounding. “The most modern edition of his corpus runs to 22 volumes, including about 150 titles,” writes Mattern, “and is one-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives.”

Tireless in his efforts to accumulate, compare, and synthesize the recorded medical knowledge of previous centuries, Galen also conducted a great deal of anatomical research (including animal vivisection) to test the theories of the day. In his 20s, he did the second-century equivalent of a residency as the physician-on-call to the gladiators of his hometown. A standard treatment for open wounds was to bathe them in hot water, followed by a plaster made of boiled flour, which Galen reports as totally ineffective – crippling, when not lethal. By contrast, he “soaked linen cloths in wine and placed the folds on the wounds,” the biographer says, “covering the cloths in soft sponges which he moistened day and night.” Whether or not the technique saved the lives of all the gladiators in his care during his first year (so Galen claimed) he definitely understood the antiseptic property of alcohol.

Opening a practice in Rome, he distinguished himself in the constant, cutthroat battle of reputation among physicians, both for his skill in diagnosis and treatment and his erudition. He seems to have been acutely sensitive to changes in a patient’s pulse and body temperature. “Long before laboratory testing,” Mattern writes, “he examined urine and feces, sweat, sputum,” and “vomit, pus, and blood for color, texture, viscosity, and sediment.” Galen’s case histories show he “scruitinized his patients’ faces for signs such as change in skin color or the shrunken eyes of wasting or extreme dehydration.” And he knew how to interview patients about their history and symptoms with more finesse than you can expect from one HMO that I could name.

Mattern stresses that Galen was also an exemplary product of Hellenistic culture – urbane, deeply familiar with Greek philosophy and literature as well as the medical authors, and capable of writing in either a matter-of-fact or a high-flown style as the circumstances required.

She notes that we have no evidence that Galen bothered to learn the language of the Empire. He wrote in Greek and did not cite Latin authors, and his reputation took root among the aristocracy, for which familiarity with Greek was the sine qua non of intellectual sophistication. Medical science in particular was a fashionable topic, and a number of Galen’s works were composed as memoranda or instructional guides for the amateurs in his entourage.

The audience for Galen’s work was not limited to the scroll-buying public. He had also learned the arts of oratory and debate practiced by the sophists -- and his encounters with other physicians were brutal rhetorical showdowns, as were his lectures on anatomy, during which slaves held down monkeys and livestock as Galen and his opponents cut them open to demonstrate their points.

Much of it was done in the street. At one point while reading the book, I got an image of the Prince of Medicine crossing paths with the adherent of some medical philosophy he opposed -- the Empiricists, say, or the Dogmatists -- and performing dissection battles while surrounded by their respective crews (students, patients, slaves, aristocratic fanboys, etc.) as well as random passers-by. Like break-dancing, in togas, with gallons and gallons of blood.

It did not hurt Galen’s reputation that he had inherited considerable wealth and could refuse payment for his services. He disdained the very idea of practicing the divine art of Asclepius (the god of medicine who had visited Galen’s father in a dream to provide vocational guidance on the boy’s future) for money. This, too, had its rhetorical side: it meant he could cast aspersions on doctors with more worldly motivations than pursuit of the pure good of healing.

In his writings, Galen expressed reluctance at being summoned by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to serve as court physician. He accepted, of course (it was an offer he couldn’t refuse) and was also retained by the succeeding emperors. Mattern suggests that there may have been more to his professed misgivings than thinly disguised braggadocio. Whatever the boost in prominence, the position also meant less autonomy.

Self-aggrandizing as Galen’s devotion to medicine may have been at times, the biographer calls him “a surprisingly pious man,” fascinated by the “cumulative and overpowering evidence of an intelligence at work” in the animals he dissected in hopes of understanding the human anatomy. This made him one of the more appealing pagan thinkers for adherents of the three major monotheistic religions, who translated them into Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. A number of his works have survived only because Islamic scholars translated them, although it’s entirely possible that the original Greek texts may yet resurface. As recently as 2007, Galen’s treatise “On the Avoidance of Pain” – long presumed lost in any language – turned up in a Greek monastery.

His biographer points out how unfortunate it is that Galen never challenged the medical value of bloodletting – a practice that continued for so long that historians have wondered if it perhaps have had therapeutic value in treating something, though it could prove fatal when done with a shaky hand.

“While it is perhaps wrong to blame him for failing to break from a tradition that his followers, including the great physicians of the Islamic Middle East and of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment mostly did not question,” writes Mattern, “one wishes he had turned his scorn on this therapy” instead of on the “three-day fasting cure” promoted by some of his peers. “For while Galen did not invent bloodletting, he had the power to consign it to oblivion.”

Maybe he did change his mind, but history lost the memo?

 

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