Sunday, April 30, 2017

How Things Change

"I met and fell in love with radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur, at an AAS meeting in 1985. We got married a year later and have managed to move together from place to place." (Joan T. Schmelz, Past Chair, Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy, American Astronomical Society, 2015)

"[D]o not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes ... there may ... be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done." (Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer, American Astronomical Society, 2016)

The good thing about blogging is that it allows other people to contribute little details you might not otherwise have found. The above juxtaposition was suggested by a commenter to a previous post. I am going to assume that Schmelz is "on board" with Marvel's comment today, so this is a great indication of how the times change over thirty years or so. It would be interesting to hear both of their views (i.e., Marvel's and Schmelz's views) on this and I have of course notified them by email that their comments are welcome. I'll keep you posted.

In fact, it seems that the changes are coming quite fast. As recently as 2002, astronomers made no secret of their love lives with each other.

Kipnis on Agency (an exchange of comments)

I'm having an interesting conversation with Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa in the comments to his post "Kipnis on Sexual Assault and Sexual Agency". While we disagree on fundamentals (I think), he's forcing me to articulate my position quite clearly, for which I'm grateful.

When it's over I'll write a post summarizing what I learned.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Science and Journalism of Harassment in the Sciences

On Wednesday evening, the NYU journalism school hosted Kate Clancy and Azeen Ghorayshi to talk about sexual harassment in science. Ghorayshi had previously participated in a similar discussion at MIT, this time with Sarah Ballard and Evelynn M. Hammonds. In both cases, the Geoff Marcy case came up, as did Clancy's SAFE13 study (not surprisingly in the NYU talk, of course). I will be drawing on these conversations in upcoming posts on Clancy's work as well as Ghorayshi's. I wanted to make a general note about the mood of the conversation.

These are very interesting conversations, in part because they appear to take place in almost parallel universe, completely insulated from qualified criticism. You can see this in the way they talk about people who don't agree with them. As they tell it, there are people who see the problem as they do, and then there are people who deny that harassment happens at all. They seem to feel this way both about the research subjects who don't answer surveys the way they want and peer reviewers who don't like their data.* The perspective that I represent, in any case, is completely absent from their thinking. Indeed, as far as I can tell, my criticism of both the science and journalism of harassment in the sciences has been completely ignored by them. The view that harassment is a real problem, but that they are misunderstanding it, doesn't seem to exist in their universe.

I was also struck by the matter of fact way Ghorayshi mentions the Tim Hunt case as a story BuzzFeed chose to cover (7:15). There seems to be no critical self-awareness that, for a great many people, that story was botched—albeit not primarily by BuzzFeed (they just ran with it like so many others). Nor does she seem aware that it was a less than proud moment for science journalism. She is clearly talking to an imagined audience of people who still think Tim Hunt is a sexist and got what he deserved. To her credit, she does mention Rolling Stone's botch of the UVa rape story (46:30), but she actually can't bring herself to say it clearly. She brings it up as something to avoid and then just sort of trails off, as if she knows that this same imagined audience still hasn't quite accepted that Jackie made her story up and Sabrina Erdely destroyed her journalistic career by telling it.

The tone of this conversation is one in which error isn't a serious possibility. In fact, of course, they are repressing this possibility, perhaps in their own minds before marginalizing it from their discourse. Like all things repressed, it will no doubt return. It's going to be interesting to see when and how their errors come to light.

*Update: A great example of this is near the end, starting at 01:13:48, where Clancy marvels over people who "still haven't heard that sexual harassment happens in science, or that it happens at all," explaining this with the "blindness" that "privilege" causes. She then tells the story of what I assume is the saga of getting the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey published (on Twitter she has previously made no secret of the fact that it's PLOS ONE that she's talking about). They withdrew the paper because of criticism from a reviewer who didn't believe her data. (I must say that there are reasons to be critical of the CSWA survey's data, but she doesn't make the reviewer sound very thoughtful, and thoughtless reviewers do exist.) Ghorayshi then picks up the thread at 01:16:07, by recalling Nature's coverage of the SAFE13 study, which was apparently balanced by voices (both of them women) who were skeptical of the survey's conclusions. (It should be noted that Clancy et. al say explicitly that their survey can't speak to prevalence.) Clancy chimes in that that "wasn't [her] favorite" piece of news of coverage. Perhaps not, but it was an actually critical piece, and one finds it hard to take seriously a researcher in this area who doesn't acknowledge the opinion of Wendy Williams. Indeed, it seems to me that SAFE13 would be much more credible if it were part of a sustained conversation with people like Ceci and Williams. For Clancy, Williams is just another "denier," I guess.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Science Discovers that Males and Females Differ in Lots of Ways

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent study of pigeons. I didn't know that "scientists tend to assume that—unless they are looking specifically at reproduction or sexual behavior—male and female animals are alike". It seems like a strange thing to assume. I also didn't know that that's the reason a lot of experimental work (like drug testing) use mainly males. I did know that they do this, but I thought it was because male bodies are less complicated than female bodies. (The easiest example is that women menstruate once a month during a randomized control trial of aspirin, for example.) That is, I thought males were chosen out of convenience, precisely because they differ from females, not because they were presumably similar in every way not related to reproduction. (There are still lots of political issues in that, of course, but it does not express an assumption of similarity.)

That said, the real puzzle here is how this study helps fight "sexism in science".

The work is part of an attempt to make science more gender-inclusive and aware of physiological and other differences between the sexes. [...] Like all other vertebrates, the gonads (testes and ovaries) are influenced by hormones produced by the pituitary gland, which itself is controlled by hormones from the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain. [...] "There are incredible differences in gene expression, especially in the pituitary," [one of the researchers] said. The results show that there are far more sex-based differences in the pituitary than previously thought, she said.

How does one square this result (which does not, like I say, surprise me) with the constant indignation over the gender disparity in some of the natural sciences? If there are "incredible differences" in "a structure of the brain" in males and females, why are we surprised that there might turn out to be a difference in the distribution of ability and desire to do, say, physics, in the male and female population? I'll just leave that as a question. I'm happy to have someone tell me what I'm getting wrong here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kate Clancy and Azeen Ghorayshi at NYU Tonight

I'm looking forward to the Kavli Conversation at NYU tonight, "Covering and Uncovering Harassment in Science", with Kate Clancy, the lead author of the SAFE13 study, and Azeen Ghorayshi, who broke the Geoff Marcy story for BuzzFeed. I'll be staying up late (here in Denmark) to catch the webcast, which, as I understand it, will be streaming from 6:30 pm (EDT) at this link (if this works, it should also be embedded above). I'll make some running notes and post them here intermittently (i.e., updating this post). I'll probably write something more coherent about it afterwards too.

Update: The livestream is too choppy. So I'm going to have to watch this later and make proper notes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Clancy: "Science doesn't have a sexual assault problem. LIFE has a sexual assault problem."

I just found a discussion of the SAFE13 study on the Breaking Bio Podcast. There are lots of things to discuss in it, but in this post I just want to highlight what Katie Hinde and Kate Clancy say about prevalence.

At 16:15, Morgan Jackson asks about this directly. Hinde first answers that they "can't really speak to prevalence" because of the self-selection problem. But "having said that" she goes on say that 71% of women and 40% of men in their sample did report experiences that "fit under the Equal Employment Office's umbrella categories for sexual harassment". What she says next is misleading. "Both men and women experienced a lot of marginalization, a lot of jokes about sex, a lot of jokes about cognitive sex differences, things like that." This leaves the impression that there were separate questions and "a lot" of women answered them in the affirmative. Actually, there was only one question* about this on the survey, and it asked about all of these (i.e., any of these) experiences, so we can only say that a lot (71%) experienced some of these things sometimes. Hinde makes it sound like the survey shows that a lot of people experience this sort of thing often. But, not only can they not "speak to prevalence" because of their sampling issues, this statement isn't even true of the sample.

Later, Clancy goes further, riding roughshod over the limitations of the study, albeit not to "belabor this prevalence point." She questions whether a completely controlled representative study of harassment could be done in practice, and then wonders whether this would actually give us any useful information. "We have absolute numbers of hundreds of women saying they were harassed and assaulted ... that's good enough for me." Again, this overstates what the survey actually shows. What they have is hundreds of women who say they have experienced anything from hearing a sexist joke (even just once) to being raped, and without actually specifying the exact behavior. And, in fact, as I've pointed out before, the survey can't distinguish between a grope and rape, nor an isolated remark from a campaign of abuse. So the "absolute" numbers are not quite what she makes them sound like they are. They're certainly not good enough for me.

What's interesting in putting Hinde's and Clancy's remarks together is the complete lack of any sense of proportion. Hinde doesn't care whether it's 75% or 50% or 20% or even 1% that get physically harassed. Even one is too many, she says. And Clancy, who actually does think she has everything she needs to assert high prevalence because they have hundreds of "absolute" responses, takes things to a new level by declaring that this isn't a problem in science but a problem in life. It's not that scientists are horrible people. It's just that they are, in fact, people, she says.

The problem with this should be obvious. Suppose the background risk of getting sexually assaulted (at your particular age) in "life" is either 5% or .5%. Now suppose that getting into fieldwork exposes you to either a 1% or a 10% chance of getting assaulted. These numbers do actually matter now. Getting them right is important. They matter as much as a man who is trying to choose between working on an oil rig and driving a truck in an oil field cares about his chances of being injured or killed. You can't just say that scientists are people and people rape and get raped. That's just not a serious statement, though it's about a very serious matter. The question is whether science is particularly dangerous. Not only do I see no evidence that it is; I see little evidence that the scientists who are studying the problem care.

The point is this. If an 18-year-old woman can reduce her odds of getting sexually assaulted by, say, half, simply by moving from the inner city to a college campus, then not only does academia not have a sexual assault problem, it appears to have found a solution to it. Likewise, if her risk of getting harassed as a 25 year-old is less if she chooses anthropological fieldwork over, say, business consulting or military service, then science (i.e., the culture of anthropology) appears have found an at least partial solution to the harassment problem that "life" poses. My guess is that universities at the very least offer a culture that both selects less rapists and keeps those that slip through better in check—better than other professional spheres, and better than society as a whole.**

Science, I suspect, is a safer place for women than "life". But Clancy and her colleagues appear hell bent on obscuring this fact.

*Update: for good order. Here are the only two questions that measure what sorts of experiences people had:

32. Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at an anthropological field site?

39. Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at an anthropological field site?

If you answer "yes" to question 32 (as you must if you've heard a sexist joke, someone has said "typical female" about something you said, or, it appears, someone has complimented you on your legs ... once) you are counted as having been "harassed". If you answer yes to 39 (even if just to acknowledge that a colleague—or local stranger—once copped a feel at a party somewhere in the tropics) you have, according to the study, been "assaulted".

**An anonymous commenter, backed up by a correspondent whose opinion I respect, has noted that I seemed to be conflating rape, assault, and harassment in an earlier version of this paragraph. After thinking about it, I think I understand why they think so, and I've rewritten it to avoid this impression. It is, after all, something I'm accusing others of doing. Please note that I'm not claiming that business consultants experience more harassment than anthropological fieldworkers; I'm saying that it is interesting to know whether that is in fact the case. And I'm noting that Clancy and Hinde don't seem to be interested in such things.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Power and Gravity

"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
La Rochefoucauld

"Don't be enamored of power."
Michel Foucault

One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.

This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.

Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.

And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.

Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?

We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?

Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.

When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.

But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.

Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does Sarah Ballard Want?

At the recent MIT Communications Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.

[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.

Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:

[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.

This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.

The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:

[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.

That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.

This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 2

[Part 1]

There must be something in the water. Laura Kipnis opened her talk at Wellesley by expressing not so much her admiration as her envy over Philip Roth's artistic liberties—his ability to write freely about sex (even when the acts in question are as strange as masturbating on a grave). Later, she mentioned a recent episode of Girls ("American Bitch") in which Hannah gets harassed (or allows herself to be harassed) by an author. Kipnis's interlocutor in my previous post also liked that episode (though she doesn't like Lena Dunham.) In the episode, Hannah and the famous author bond on their appreciation of Roth. To close the circle, the episode apparently also resonated with Sarah Ballard. It looks like I'm going to have to find some way of watching it.

Kipnis praises Lena Dunham for her honesty about the conflicting emotions that play out in sexual harassment situations. In the context of her other remarks, I think her point is that we can use these artistic representations to better understand such situations and, by extension, help us navigate them safely. Norman Mailer suggested, to my mind plausibly, that literature helps us draw maps of the social world that can guide our way through it. Kenneth Burke called literature "equipment for living" with, I imagine, similar thoughts in mind.

In this spirit, I want to propose for our consideration three scenes from the canon, all which of are arguably "major" contributions to American letters, and therefore the American experience. In an important sense, they are part of what America knows about sex. Actually, in a sense that I think Kipnis laments, they are more accurately part of what America has forgotten about sex and therefore no longer teaches its college-aged women. The first was published in the early 1920s, the second in the late 1950s and the last at the beginning of the 21st century. They are by Hemingway, Mailer and Roth respectively. I will provide some capsule summaries here but I will insist that any further discussion should proceed on the basis of reading them.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein telling him that "Up In Michigan" was a good story but that it was ultimately "inaccroachable", by which she basically meant "obscene". It includes a quite explicit sexual encounter that it would not be very controversial to describe as a rape. But even so, it also includes a lot of the ambiguities and conflicts that might, more controversially, be seen as distributing, if not blame, then responsibility, or desire, or perhaps more neutrally, agency to the victim: "Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her."

As if to anticipate the case I discussed in my last post, however, I don't think Jim thought of it as an assault, though Liz clearly told him no: "You mustn't do it, Jim. You mustn't." (Perhaps, then, it does help me to imagine what I said I would have a hard time getting my mind around.) I think we can agree that it tells us something about what a 20th-century woman could do to avoid having sex she doesn't, finally, want to have. By extension it can, perhaps, be part of the curriculum for teaching men not to rape, as some Title IX activists like to put it.

By the time Norman Mailer wrote "The Time of Her Time", explicit sex scenes were no longer inaccroachable. And Mailer certainly tried to do something with that freedom. The story is about a Village stud, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, who sets his mind to bringing Denise, a young woman—nineteen years old and a college student no less—to orgasm. This turns out to be a very demanding task, and, in desperation and frustration, and with an almost plainly declared desire for retribution (he calls his penis, "The Avenger"), he finally commits what, on paper (as it were), looks disconcertingly like an anal rape. It certainly seems to anticipate the kinds of encounters that Title IX officers have been asked to adjudicate, with "mattress girl" perhaps the most famous example.

Neither character in Mailer's story, however, seems to think of it in those terms, even though the woman leaves in anger over what he has done. As in Hemingway's story, there is enough detail and enough perspective to help us think clearly about the agency of the participants, and the contingency of the situation. While Hemingway, it must be noted, wrote his story in the third person and peeked into the heads of both characters at key moments, Mailer chose the first-person perspective of the man alone. But in both cases we are able to see, not only how things could have been different, but who could have done something differently.

Finally, let us consider a story that provides a rich and nuanced view on perhaps exactly the kind of the situation Kipnis is most interested in. In The Dying Animal, Philip Roth imagines a relationship between a sixty-something university professor, David Kepesh, and a 24-year old university student, Consuela Castillo. For many of today's campus feminists, the relationship might be considered sexual harassment almost by definition. Even though Kepesh is careful to make sure the affair happens after the course is over and the grades have been given, there's no question that he deliberately "targets" her, nor that the power imbalance remains throughout the story.

Early on in the relationship (p. 30ff), as a continuation of a consensual encounter (again, much like the story we considered in the last post), Kepesh takes control of a sexual encounter and forces oral sex on the student in a manner that has much of the violence of Mailer's story. In both cases, the man is doing something that the woman "does not like" in order to "make something happen to her". O'Shaugnessy describes the woman as "thrash[ing] beneath [him] like a trapped little animal"; Kepesh says he "kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair." Roth suggests that this act of violence "freed her", though she "looked not just horrified but ferocious" afterwards; Mailer has Sergius say, "I gave you what you could use" after Denise tells him he did a "lousy thing". Like I say, the objections of the women notwithstanding, I think both Mailer and Roth would balk at the idea that an assault took place.

This aspect of sex, in which our partner pushes us across our boundaries, beyond, in an important sense, the limits of our "consent", is increasingly frowned upon in our culture. It is a boundary that Title IX officers appear to be only too happy to patrol and police. Indeed, in order to find O'Schaugnessy and Kepesh guilty of sexual assault, I think we'd have to project our 21st-century "academic" concept of consent into those situations. In those bygone times, the woman might be angered, and even genuinely hurt, by such actions, but she would see it more like the pain of the boxer than than that of a victim. I'm not here, not yet, taking a position on it. I'm saying that we have a literature that can provide us with what Ezra Pound called "the data for ethics".

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 1

If you want to see some really frank talk about the regulation of campus sexuality, Laura Kipnis's talk at Wellesley last month is well worth the time. I want to draw attention in particular to the exchange between Kipnis and some students at the end of the Q & A. She is being asked to comment on the experiences of the friends of these students, which is difficult terrain in this sort of forum, but one that the conversation, in my opinion, has to cover if we're going to make progress. Kipnis apparently shares this view; she rightly tells one student not to apologize for pushing the point. "You're getting to the real nitty-gritty of it," she says.

The exchange had an interesting arc. Kipnis at first takes the sketches of the experiences at face value and suggests that, since these were negative experiences, we do well to think about how they could have been avoided. (I think Kipnis is right when she says—more clearly in answer to an earlier question—that some women need to learn how to say no assertively and how to defend themselves.) This elicits some pushback from another student who proposes to consider cases that, she asserts, are definitely assault.

During the course of the conversation the scenario she is describing becomes clearer. Apparently we are talking about a steady couple who begin to have (consensual) sex (as usual) but at some point it takes a violent turn. He holds her down and forces her to engage in something she does not want. At this point, Kipnis tersely remarks that that is just illegal and the conversation could perhaps have ended there.

But there is one important discordant element in the student's description of this episode. She says that the man would "genuinely not think of [it] as an assault", nor, as I understand it, was any attempt made to make him see it as such after the fact. That is, the assault is an uncontroversial fact among a group of female friends, but would be highly controversial as such if presented to the man who is supposed to have committed it. This sits oddly with something else the student puts into her description of the case later: the woman had said no. It is unclear to me how a man, faced with these facts, could both grant that they accurately represent what happened and deny that it was assault.

This is what the conversation seems to hinge on, although Kipnis (I think wisely) doesn't force the ambiguity to a resolution. The student who had put the example forward demands a response; she demands to know what Kipnis thinks should be done here. And she rejects a number of suggestions, both from Kipnis and another student, that go to the need for better communication between the sexual partners, and perhaps better judgment in the choice of sexual partners. It's clear that while Kipnis is not blaming the victim, she is raising the question of how she got herself into this vulnerable situation. (Kipnis rightly points out that sex just is a vulnerable situation.) "What 'situation'?" the student balks. While they might be appropriate in other situations, she insists, the case as described is not open to those responses.

At this point, Kipnis, granting, I suppose, the student the right to specify the facts of the case (it's of her choosing, after all), asks what she thinks a proper response would be: prosecute? And here the student becomes very categorical. "Yes ... if someone penetrates you forcibly after you've said no—which is what I said [happened]—[then] yes [he should be prosecuted], because that's what rape is."

Kipnis basically leaves it there, but here, really, is the rub. Because it will now be the woman's word against the man's. (Keep in mind that we're talking about two people who are alone together and naked and already engaged in sexual activity on an entirely consensual basis at the time that the alleged assault takes place.) Obviously, once the accusation of sexual assault is levied, he will insist that he had consent and that she did not say no or resist. Indeed, the student had previously said that his defense here would not even be dishonest. He would "genuinely" believe that he did not assault her. (Again, I find this hard to get my mind around unless he simply didn't hear her say no.) And yet there is supposed to be no doubt in our minds, i.e., the minds of people who are hearing this story from the point of view of the alleged victim (albeit third-hand), that this was indeed an assault. It is presented as cut and dried at one level, but also somehow still "problematic", an "issue". This obviously exposes the accused to the risk of being expelled (on one sort of standard) even where there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of rape. Kipnis is right to wonder whether we want these situations adjudicated quasi-judicially.

The problem with the case that the student is putting forward is that it is supposed to be an entirely objective assault to everyone but the perpetrator. The man in the story would not feel like he "got caught", but that there was something he just doesn't understand about women. I think this captures very neatly the idea of a new kind of subjective "rape" that the Title IX culture has fostered on college campuses. It also has obvious parallels to the problem of harassment, which is increasingly being defined in terms of the subjective experience of the victim, not the more objective judgment of what the law refers to as a "reasonable person". In Part 2, I want to suggest ways that literature can help us understand the subjectivity of these situations.

[Part 2]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Geoff and Sarah Show

I started out calling it "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". But this MIT panel made me imagine another device. I'll do a closer analysis of the panel in the weeks to come, but I wanted to note an immediate impression and ask those who choose watch it along with me whether they think the same. Does it not seem that everyone is talking in very vague terms both about what Geoff Marcy did and what happened to Sarah Ballard? It is assumed throughout that Marcy sexually harassed Ballard, and that Ballard was harmed by his actions, but it is never made clear what happened.

I, for one, have never quite understood what Marcy is supposed to have done wrong. Is Ballard claiming that Marcy had sexual desires for Ballard and tried to satisfy them by wielding the power he held over her career? Is she even claiming that Marcy somehow harmed Ballard's career? I don't think she's making such claims. There's a point in the discussion (22:20) where she seems to be saying (as I've noted before) that the damage consisted mainly in her coming to question whether science is a purely meritocratic profession. Perhaps, then, it was his friendship, not his sexual interest, that disconcerted her? I, for one, am not persuaded that Marcy hoped to have a romantic relationship with Ballard. And Ballard herself seems unsure about whether he did. Otherwise, couldn't she just tell the story as a clear attempt at seduction?

Notice that for all the references to the experience during the panel, neither Ghorayshi nor Ballard ever really tell the story of what happened between Ballard and Marcy. This got me thinking. Until the scandal broke, Marcy considered himself an ally of women in science. Indeed, it's my impression that many women continue to think of him as an ally, albeit very quietly and in private for the most part. By resigning, he seemed clearly to be thinking of how to protect his colleagues (and no doubt his graduate students) from getting caught in some very destructive pressures. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that he had the best interests of astronomy as a field at heart. It has never seemed like he was willing to take anyone else down with him in this debacle.

So why, I wonder, has his willingness to cooperate not been exploited (I mean that in a good sense) by gender activists? Why does Sarah Ballard appear on a panel like this and talk vaguely and guardedly about her experiences rather than touring the country's astronomy departments with Geoff Marcy, speaking directly and openly about their shared cautionary tale of interpersonal relationships in science? Why isn't this story being told in detail so that the very men that activists think can be taught not to harass women, and the vulnerable women that Ballard explicitly wants to help avoid such harassment, could learn from it?

It seems to me that a real opportunity was missed here. Ironically, the very people that pushed the hard line against Marcy, ultimately forcing him into retirement, keep saying that this isn't about individuals. It's a "systemic" problem, they say. It's about changing the culture and transforming the institutions. Surely, the best way to do this is to model conflict resolution between tootwo well-meaning people like Ballard and Marcy. Reading Ballard's story, I can't for the life of me understand why a healing process between them should be impossible. At this point, it's mainly Marcy's reticence to go anywhere near his accusers that makes sense. I wouldn't be easily persuaded either. I think that should sit badly with self-avowed gender activists like Ballard and Ghorayshi. With panels like this, they are not bridging the gender gap. They are deepening it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


These musings about an ideal (or better) college are a nice way of keeping things in perspective. I have already written about the sort of curriculum I'd like to see and how the grades should be distributed. But what about the form of the examinations themselves? First, I think there should be both oral and written exams. Some should have very little preparation and some should have a great deal. That is, students should demonstrate an ability to produce a thoroughly researched and carefully planned presentation (again, both in speech and writing) but they should also demonstrate extemporaneous mastery. As before, let's assume they are taking three courses per semester. That means they will have six exams every year.

In the last year, they should submit some sort of thesis that would be defended orally. Here all their skills would be brought together and count for maybe one half of that year's overall grade. Other than that, here a six exams I'd like to see:

1. Research paper. The student is given a general topic and is expected to narrow it to a problem that can be solved using the resources of a library. The length of the paper would increase from year to year, but there would be a consistent requirement to write well-formed prose paragraphs that present a coherent argument.

2. Take-home essay. The students would be given a limited amount of time (24, 48 or 72 hours) to answer a question pertaining to the course.

3. Written exam. Again, this is a familiar sort of performance. The students would arrive in a classroom with a specified set of materials (books, notes, etc.) and would be given a question to answer in an essay form. They would be given, say, four hours to plan and compose an essay. This would test their actual writing ability as well as their mastery of the course material.

4. Oral presentation. Students would prepare an oral presentation of a specified length. Essentially a short lecture. Afterwards, the examiner would ask questions to probe their knowledge.

5. Oral examination. Students would simply arrive at the exam and answer questions put to them by a panel of examiners. Their only preparation would be the course itself (they would receive no question in advance).

6. Debate. Students would debate each other on issues related to the course. The grade would be given on the individual performance.

There's really nothing new about any of those exams. But there's something about bringing them together like this that, at least for me, clarifies the competence that could be imparted by a "liberal arts" education. To pass these exams, students would need to be able to think, speak and write. In addition to their reading, preparing for these exams simply means building these competences through continuous practice—of thinking, talking and writing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Speakers

For the students of Claremont McKenna

A good college will often bring in guest speakers to enrich the conversation among students and faculty. The apparently growing phenomenon of students protesting guests with the intent of preventing them from speaking suggests that colleges need to develop a culture, and perhaps a set of policies, that guides decisions about controversial speakers and governs reactions to those decisions. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, there should be a limited pool of resources to draw on to host guests. That is, invitations should be considered on the basis of the value of the speaker, measured against the cost of hosting them. I'm here talking about the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as any speaking fee. All of these will vary from speaker to speaker. Some speakers demand, or simply deserve, not just a high speaking fee but first class travel and lodgings. At the end of the day, it is the president of the college (working through whatever deputies and committees) that authorizes the expense. All guests of the college, therefore, are guests of the president.

Now, I believe that faculty and students should have channels through which to propose invitations. Indeed, academic departments should have some part of the guest speaker budget that they are free to do with as they please. Likewise, some funds should be allocated to let the students themselves invite speakers. The best way to do this is to let student organizations apply for funding to invite speakers. The important thing is that even these guests, since they are a paid for by the college, are guests of the college, not just he department or student group that. Finally, students groups and departments who raise their own funds would still need campus facilities (a lecture hall) to hold the event. These should be provided free of charge and, again, approval means that the guest speaker is a guest of the college, which is to say, of the president of the college.

That is, while all guest speakers are in practice invited by members of the college of community, the invitation is in principle extended by the president of the college. This is the principle that I would put at the center of any controversies about an invited speaker.

This means, first, that "free speech" is really about the right of the community to hear views that interest them. Once an invitation has been extended, it must be assumed that some members of the community want to hear the speaker's views. The speaker did not have some pre-given right to speak at the college. The speaker is there, "at the pleasure" of the president, who represents the community.

This, in turn, suggests that any protest should be directed, not against the speaker, but against the president who approved the request and extended the invitation. It's the president's judgment that is in question, not the speaker's right to speak. Also, any disruption is a violation of the campus rules of decorum, according to which any sanctioned activity (whether a class, a sports match, or a guest lecture) must be allowed to developed under the rules appropriate to it. Students who violate these rules do so at the risk of being disciplined and ultimately of being expelled. That is, they would have to answer to the president of the college.

Finally, the president would always owe an apology to an invited speaker whose event was disrupted. Even a "peaceful" protest should embarrass the president, especially if it used the sort of strong denunciations in its rhetoric that many protests these days deploy. Once the invitation has been extended on behalf of the campus, respectful, articulate disagreement should be not only allowed but encouraged. But at no point should the speaker reasonably feel unwelcome, let alone unsafe. The very need for police protection from students calls into the question the whole culture of a campus.*

I believe that if this attitude was taken and enforced with respect to campus speakers, we would not see the sort of protests we are seeing today. In fact, I presume that this is the attitude that is preserving the good name of many colleges as we speak. We don't hear enough about them. The good example is so much less newsworthy.

*Some speakers require protection on the best of campuses. Obviously, if the POTUS were invited, the ordinary security precautions would need to be taken. But not out of fear of the general student body—only the disturbed "lone gunman" among them. But this is no different than any other speaking engagement. My point is just that no speaker should feel especially unsafe on the campus I'm envisaging.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Colleague Rape Crisis

"Microsoft, where’s your ad campaign telling adult male scientists not to rape their colleagues in the field?" (Monica Byrne, HT Christina Richey RTing Karen James)

This is one of those nits that I happen to be qualified to pick. I agree with Monica Byrne that there's something odd about Microsoft's attempt to brand itself as a supporter of women in STEM by telling girls that the odds are against them.* But I must say that the ad she imagines might be more on point would hardly be more encouraging: telling young women that the odds are they'll get raped by a colleague. Neither message is especially well-suited to getting them to "stay in STEM".

Her sources for that claim are worth examining more closely. The first is an op-ed in the New York Times by A. Hope Jahren that brings her personal story of being raped while doing fieldwork together with Kate Clancy's Survey of Academic Field Experiences. The second is a Mother Jones interview with Clancy herself about the same study. Jahren's piece is compellingly written but makes what I believe is a baseless connection between her own story and Clancy's research.

If I understand Jahren correctly, she was attacked and violently raped by a local stranger in an Aegean resort town. Her story, she tells us, "is not unique," and she cites Clancy's study to support the assertion that "26 percent of the female scientists surveyed had been sexually assaulted during fieldwork." And she goes even further: "I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues." Again she cites Clancy, quoting: "perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team."

Here's the problem with this way of putting it: Although its definition of sexual assault did cover rape, and the paper said that respondents reported "sexual assault including rape", Clancy's study did not ask specifically about rape. We simply don't know how many people in Clancy's survey were reporting "stories like" Jahren's, which sounds truly awful but did not have a colleague as a perpetrator. It is likely that most of the bad behavior Clancy's survey registered was unwanted groping and stolen kisses. Connecting the problem of being raped by a stranger in a stairwell with the problem of unwanted touches by a colleague at a party in this vague way is highly problematic from my point of view.

I don't doubt Jahren's story. But I do find her claim that she knows "several women" who have stories similar to hers, i.e., stories of violent forcible rape with "blood under [her] fingernails", except that the perpetrator was not a stranger but a fellow scientist, a bit hard to believe. In any case, it's almost certainly not true that this is the experience of 1 in 4 women in STEM. While I don't doubt that doing field work exposes women to a higher risk of sexual assault, I do not believe that "staying in STEM" in general increases a woman's odds of being raped. Contra Byrne, I do not believe that male scientists are especially in need of being told not to rape their female colleagues.

If anything is going to keep women out of STEM I think this idea that it's a favored career path for rapists is probably going to do it. Fortunately, it appears to be baseless. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to stop ideologues from pushing it.

*UPDATE: As Jonathan Mayhew points out in the comments (and at his blog) the way these odds are presented in the ad is misleading too. It tells the girls that they have a 6.7% chance of graduating with a STEM degree (indeed, it tells them "odds are you won't solve [the] problems [you are interested in]") because they are female. But the same ad for boys would not (as some viewers might have assumed) tell them their odds are 93.3%. Rather, 17% of men graduate with STEM degrees. Assuming a roughly equal male/female population that means that the chance that anyone gets a STEM degree is 11.8%. Moreover, as Jonathan points out, there are fields (including those relevant to the interests of the girls in the ad) that graduate more women than men. The point should be that science is hard. Boys, too, should in principle be told that the odds are against them solving the world's problems through science. But there is a time for that hard truth and 12 years old isn't, in my opinion, it. Telling girls of any age that science is harder for them than it is for boys, meanwhile, is a lie that reinforces the inequality it attempts to address. I agree with Jonathan when he says that we "want a basic statistical literacy among those debating these issues. The M of STEM after all is Math."

Sunday, April 09, 2017


Many years ago I had an epiphany while struggling with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. How many philosophers, I thought to myself, have ever had the time to take it seriously? How many have ever really carried out a transcendental deduction of the categories of experience? We say we're "beyond Kant", "post-Kantian", etc. But how many people have really read him, really mastered his thinking? Is it a question of going further than Kant in our understanding of pure reason? Or aren't we first and foremost struggling just to reach his level of precision on the matter? The same, I realized, goes for later thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Who ever really gets the Philosophical Investigations or Being and Time under their skin? Who knows enough to go beyond them?

The insight also applies to literature. When did anyone really have time to read In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses carefully enough? When did anyone finish with Hamlet or Don Quixote? All of these works are inexhaustible; they reward any amount of rereading. Also, they provide a point of departure for the study of virtually all Western literature. Anything you read can be understood better by setting it in their light. They are the exemplars par excellence of "modern language", just as Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger epitomize "modern thought".

I'm not trying to suggest a "canon". I'm happy to let you replace any of the these works with works you find to be equally inexhaustible but more interesting to you. My point is that once we have chosen six or eight of these books we don't, in principle, need any more. These can be the core of a curriculum for a particular college; they can constitute what the students have to become intimately familiar with. Their authors can serve as the masters of the craft that the students are themselves pursuing—always partial—mastery of. In short, they are masterpieces.

There are those who would point out that I have chosen exclusively white males. In my defense, two of them are not straight. Also, I would argue that even a college that sets itself to "deconstructing Western metaphysics" will need to deconstruct precisely these six or seven works. These are the texts you must struggle with. It is not, I would argue, as easy as some people think. A mind that is capable of deconstructing the "presence" and "privilege" of Shakespeare and Proust has some serious intellectual skills.

It should go without saying that the students can and will read much more than the core curriculum. In class, the core works will be continuously exposed to what came before and what came after in order, of course, to better understand not just the core works, but also what came before and what came after. In any case, masterpieces—whichever ones a college chooses—must be at the forefront of the curriculum. Programs should be organized around them. They would read Woolf to shed fresh light on Ulysses. When they read Deleuze they are really improving their understanding of Proust. When they read Borges they are enriching their understanding of Cervantes. Plato helps them to read Heidegger. Beckett opens new perspectives on Wittgenstein. Lisa Robertson takes them through Heidegger to Dante. Etc.

Imagine 2400 students that, in addition to their particular specialties and idiosyncrasies are all conversant about Hamlet and the Quixote, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, Being and Time and the Investigations. Or six comparable works. Imagine the intellectual culture on a such a campus. Surely, we would here have students capable of thought, speech and writing at a level worthy of Western civilization. They would be something our civilization could be proud of. And they could, perhaps more importantly, be proud of themselves.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Learn to Think, Speak and Write!

Jordan Peterson nails it (at 1:51 and forward):

Being knowledgeable, I said a couple of years ago, is the ability to make up your mind, speak your mind, and write it down.

Thursday, April 06, 2017


Before I get into the more interesting matter of curriculum design I want to propose something that I believe would improve grading practices in college. Let us imagine that students take three courses per semester and there are 600 students in a cohort. That means that 1800 grades would be given out to each cohort every semester. My idea, now, is to draw these grades from fixed pool of available As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.

The distribution could vary slightly from school to school. The simplest is 20% As, 30% Bs, 30% Cs and 20% Ds. Teachers would "draw" their grades from this pool in rounds that allow for a maximum of 360 As, 540 Bs, and 540 Cs, with the remaining 360 going to Ds and Fs. If a teacher wants to give a student an A after the pool has run out, then they would have to square them off against the picks of other teachers in that round, before a panel of disinterested [faculty] peers who would look only at the general quality of the submitted work.

This would give teachers the task of designing assignments that demonstrate mastery in a relatively objective way, beyond the "subjective" (or specialist) judgment that the course teacher is able to give. Students, too, would need to make sure that they are not just impressing their teacher, but doing work to an inter-subjectively enforced standard. Teachers at each level should of course reach some agreement about what sorts of assignments to give their students—essays of what length, etc.

Oral examination could also be done this way, with some students being called in to perform before the judges to determine who gets the As and who must settle for Bs. The teachers would, of course, not send their best students into these battles because they would be at risk of getting a B (and that would be rather unfair). They would send those that deserve an A only if they outperform their [student] peers in general academic skills (presentation, coherence, reasoning, etc.).

After some time, I imagine the teachers would get a good sense of each other's standards and would be able to trust each other's judgment. The point is that an "easy A" would, on closer examination, not be so easy. Teachers would in a sense be nominating their students for grades, not merely assigning them unilaterally.

PS I apologize for the breezy style, but it's having a cheering effect on me just to dash these ideas off the top of my head like this. If this system sounds like a lot of work, I think you're overestimating how many grades would actually end up in the "danger zone" between pools and how difficult it would be to decide between them.


I'm a romantic about the college campus. I believe it should be located near a small town (where the faculty could live) and have green grounds with trees to sit under and even woods to walk in. There should be dorms for all the students. There should be dining facilities—not a food court but a decent cafeteria—for each dorm. There should be a library. The academic departments should have offices (one office for each faculty position). And there should, of course, be lecture halls, classrooms and colloquium rooms.

I am not against athletic facilities. But they must not increase the cost of tuition nor become a major financial interest. (There is always the danger of drawing too many donations into the "brand value" of an athletics department.) I think any institution at which young people live year-round needs places and equipment for, not just exercise, but games of various kinds. There should be sports fields and, perhaps, even a swimming pool.

I also believe that the students should contribute labor to the upkeep of the grounds. While there should be a grounds keeper who organizes this work, much of the labor should be provided by students working a few hours each week. The same goes for keeping the dorms and classrooms clean. There should not be a staff of caretakers to leave the impression that university students have servants. Even two hours a week from 2400 students is 4800 hours, or the equivalent of 120 full-time staff members. And, yes, I believe it would build character and a sense of care for the campus.

This care should of course also be care for each other as members of the community. A certain spirit should animate a college campus, one that respects the privilege of attending an institution, relatively sheltered from the pressures of social life.

Advertising and corporate branding should be entirely banned from campus. There should be no Starbucks on campus and no posters that sell anything of any kind, except tickets to events sponsored by campus organizations. No donation should be able to buy the attention of the students. No surface on campus should distract the students from the main purpose: learning. (Obviously, what the students choose to wear and what posters they hang up in the dorm rooms is their own business.)

I would expect the campus to be connected to the Internet, of course. But I think the classrooms themselves should be low tech, with chalk boards.

This was sort of a boring post, I guess. There isn't really anything revolutionary in these suggestions. The idea, however, is to keep things simple and inexpensive and to involve the students in their maintenance. That's really the main point.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


I'm impatient, so I'll just begin today. The first thing to consider when imagining a college is what it should cost to attend. It must not be free because going to college should be the result of a decision that weighs a short-term investment against some long term goals. On the other hand, it should not be so expensive that "elite" simply means "wealthy" (or that only exceptionally talented poor people can go to elite colleges through the generosity of scholarships). How, much, then, is reasonable?

My suggestion is that it should cost, all inclusive, $12,000 dollars a year to attend college in the United States.* By "all inclusive", I mean exactly that. $12,000 dollars should cover tuition, materials, room and board. This means that a college campus must provide cheap accommodation and food for all the students. Ideally, students would not be able to spend personal wealth to improve their quality of life while at school. That is, economic inequality should be suspended.

I arrive at $12,000 by way of another utopian notion: basic income. I believe that young people, based on their demonstrated merit in high school, should be able to attend a college by spending their entire basic income for the time they attend. They will only graduate (with a satisfying grade) if they devote themselves entirely to the effort, which means they will be unable to hold a job on the side. School should require all their energy. Or, rather, it should provide a context in which all their energies can be meaningfully devoted to learning.

Let's imagine a school with an incoming class of 600 students. Roughly 2400 students in all would attend at any given time. That's a revenue stream of 28.8 million dollars. 250 faculty and 50 staff members earning an average salary of $70,000 would cost 21 million. I have not worked out whether you can feed 2400 people for a year on $7.8 million. I hope someone can find a way (or tell me how much I've got left over after everyone's been fed). The students would be required to do a certain amount of (unpaid) work on the campus in order to graduate. (Again, I would recommend not letting wealthy students pay their way out of this, for obvious reasons.)

I believe the grounds and buildings should be donated by the community. This will normally mean some sort of state subsidy, involving a land grand with a tax exemption for as long as the college operates. Also, there ought to be an endowment, funded by the alumni and other benefactors, both for the expansion of facilities and their upkeep. The luxuriousness of a college should in no way depend on the tuition fees (which should be the same at all colleges); it should depend entirely on a combination of state funding and private contributions.

I'm leaving a lot of things out here, of course. The important thing to keep in mind is that I'm only trying to imagine the operation of a physical place that lets people eat and sleep, teach and learn. Very little is required of such a space in principle. It can be done cheaply. In subsequent posts I want to say something about what the place should look like and what should go on there.

*It may rightly be asked why I, a Dane, would set my mind to imagining the ideal American college. That subject is worth a post of its own, but, to be brief, I believe that the future depends on America. I don't believe that any utopian schemes can be implemented anywhere until they are, at the very least, imaginable in America.


I have to regroup. Trying to explain what is wrong with higher education in the West today feels like banging one's head into a brick wall (the wall of the administration's offices, in most cases). I'm going to spend a few posts dreaming, imagining what college and university could be like. I'll start tomorrow.

Same As It Ever Was

It's exhausting to think about what his happening to our ("Western") culture and, especially, our universities. I'm reduced to gathering quotes:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood... (Tocqueville, 1840)
[The society of the future] will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these grousp must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience... (Layton, 1961)
American colleges have abandoned their educational mission and become government colonies, ruled by officious bureaucrats enforcing federal dictates. This despotic imperialism has no place in a modern democracy. (Paglia, 2017)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Corrosion of Truth

K.C. Johnson neatly expresses my concerns about the "social science" of campus rape, albeit when talking, not about science, but about policy and process.

The only reason that colleges and universities have for their existence is the pursuit of truth. If we’re no longer in the business of pursuing truth, we no longer have a reason to be around. And these are systems in which the colleges and universities are willingly making life altering decisions about their students on the basis of wildly incomplete evidence. And you can’t have a college or university system where we say, “Okay, we have this one area where we’ve got this set of procedures where we basically don’t care, but in all other aspects of college and university actions we do care about the truth. Trust us.” That just doesn’t work. So the Title IX prosecutions are fundamentally corrosive to the basic nature of higher education. (31:20)

Like I say, he's talking about the adjudication of individual cases. Surely, it gets much worse when the construction of general claims about the prevalence of rape is equally unconstrained by a care for the truth. As I write this, I note that there is as yet not a single piece of journalism that is critical of the idea that 15% of female undergraduates at UT Austin have been raped (see my notes). The claim has been widely reported, but remains completely unquestioned. This despite the fact that it is nonsensical on its face.

It is a perfect example of a "post-truth" fact. Everyone understands that the university's Title IX apparatus has commissioned the construction of this fact (at a cost of almost two million dollars) and everyone respectfully asserts it as such. How we can know anything at all about society if facts like this cannot be questioned is beyond me.