Academic Mary Sues

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2004

And while we’re on the subject … Erin O’Connor’s blog performs a useful service; a bit one-sided to be sure, but then we all have our particular bugbears to belabour. Still, could she _please_ cease and desist from calling her ham-handed academic “comedy-by-installment”: (apparently contributed by an anonymous reader), “Pictures from an Institution”? Poor old Randall Jarrell‘s corpse must be up to 1,500 rpms by now. Jarrell certainly had his conservative side, and a caustic turn of phrase when skewering academic pomposity, but he wrote like an angel. He could never, _never_ commit a sentence like:

bq. Erwin R. Sackville had made a career out of staying ahead of the field’s steep curve of philosophical abandonment.

to pick just one of many. It’s flabby, saggy, and doesn’t really mean anything. The reference to Jarrell’s novel doesn’t do O’Connor’s ersatz academic satire any favours; she’d be much better off abandoning it. Read the original instead; it’s a delight (an academic comedy of manners that is one of the saddest books I know).

A Low Bar

by Kieran Healy on March 2, 2004

Via “Volokh”: comes news of the controversial firing by “Penn State Altoona”: of Professor “Nona Gerard”: Penn State aren’t talking about it. “Erin O’Connor”: gives the Prof’s side of the story. Gerard was dismissed, it seems, for making what in diplomatic circles would be called a full and frank assessment of her colleagues. The details of what she said do not appear to be public. Given the lack of information I make no judgment either way, though on its face firing tenured Professors because they are opinionated jerks seems to set a dangerous precedent. “Eric Rasmusen”:, whom you may remember is everyone’s “favorite”: “homophobic economist”:,0,7121293.story?coll=chi-technology-hed, is on Gerard’s side. He comments:

bq. We see also that her criticism was indeed stinging. Her mere words were so effective that they led one person to retire and another to resign. To me, that implies that her criticisms must have had merit– otherwise, why react so strongly?

“Revealed preferences”: strike again! It _must_ be true, otherwise why are you reacting like that? QED! My students sometimes try a variant of this idea, viz, “You’re only giving me an F because You Can’t Handle The Truth, man.” It’s a useful rule to live by, especially late at night, in bars, when talk turns to the personal qualities of people’s mothers.

The economics of everyday life

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2004

“Tim Dunlop”: tells us about another signal contribution to the “David Bernstein school”: of revealed preference theory.

bq. It’s hard to take Keith Windschuttle seriously when he says things like this, apparently without irony:

bq. “In other words, since the ’60s the great majority of Aboriginal people have voted with their feet in favour of integration with white Australia.”

bq. Same way I used to vote with my fork and eat my Brussels sprouts when told I couldn’t eat anything else for the night if I didn’t.

(minor corrections and reformatting of original)

Passion(ate?) discussion

by Eszter Hargittai on March 2, 2004

There will be a panel discussion this afternoon at Princeton (4:30pm EST) about the Passion movie (see live Webcast). My good friend, the very smart Steven Tepper will be on the panel as will some other interesting Princeton academics plus representatives of national Catholic and Jewish organizations. Steve studies controversies over art and culture so it should be interesting to hear his take on the reactions to this movie.


by Brian on March 2, 2004

Over on my other blog, a discussion started up about whether it is valuable to do a terminal MA before starting a PhD. My impression is that in philosophy, the answer is sometimes yes. The obvious costs are that you spend longer in grad school, and may have to move once more often. The benefits are that you may get into a better PhD program after an MA than after a BA, that you’ll be better prepared for the PhD, and you’ll have an opportunity to tell whether you want to be in grad school before making a serious commitment. I think that if you don’t get into a top PhD program, and you do get into a top MA program[1] on balance it probably is better to do the MA. Is this true across the humanities in America? Is it true even in philosophy? The structure of graduate degrees in the UK and Australia is quite different to America, so I’m not sure how well this would generalise across the oceans.

fn1. Assuming these exist in all fields. In philosophy a few schools offer highly respected terminal MA programs, and many of the graduates of those programs are placed in top PhD programs. The most prominent examples are Tufts and Arizona State, but there are several other such programs.

Brothers in arms

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2004

I see that Tom DeLay is “trying to push forward”: one of the Republican talking-points that has been doing the rounds the last couple of weeks.

bq. DeLay used his weekly news briefing to denounce Kerry’s Vietnam War record, citing what he described as the senator’s “accusing his brothers-in-arms in Vietnam of wholesale rape and murder, and his bizarre refusal to answer questions about his disturbing record.” Kerry, a decorated war veteran, testified before Congress in 1971 about reports of atrocities committed by U.S. troops.

Leaving aside DeLay’s dubious reporting of what Kerry said, there’s an interesting question here – what is the precise slur that he’s trying to cast? Is he claiming that there weren’t instances of wholesale rape and murder by US troops in Vietnam? If so, he’s lying. Is he saying that that US soldiers shouldn’t testify about true instances of rape and murder to Congress, because they’d be betraying their ‘brothers’? Rather hard to defend that one if you think about it. Indeed, the question could be turned back on DeLay. Either he’s making the mendacious claim that US troops didn’t commit atrocities in Vietnam, or he’s arguing that rape and murder should be hushed up when they’re committed by men wearing US army fatigues. I don’t know which is the more disgusting position. I’m not precisely enthusiastic about Kerry’s candidacy (or about the US Democratic party more generally), but given the behavior and positions of the other crowd, I don’t think there’s much of a choice.

U.K. – home of e-democracy?

by Maria on March 2, 2004

For a country with a better than average social welfare safety net, Britain still seems to enjoy plenty of social entrepreneurship. These days the UK is a seething hotbed of activity aimed at opening up the political process to the masses.

MySociety has just launched a blog-based website called Downing Street Says. It strips out into a readable format each topic covered in the Prime Minister’s spokesman’s daily Q&A with political correspondents, and allows the public to add comments. (BBC story here.)Official transcripts of the daily Q&A and the PM’s monthly press conference are available somewhere on the UK government website. But they’re difficult to find, published in long clumps of text, and of course have no comments sections. Downing Street Says has been put together by volunteers who simply want to make the process more open to the public, and it makes for an interesting read.

I’m still a bit on the fence about how much these initiatives really improve democracy, but hats off to the people who’ve used their spare time and talents to put this together. Also worth looking at is faxyourmp, and a whole slate of projects that MySociety is currently fundraising for. James Crabtree at VoxPolitics is an excellent source of information and opinion about developments in this field.

Now if only someone would take on Hansard…

Grotesquely Long Post

by John Holbo on March 2, 2004

Tom Smith is playing Socrates to my sophistical Polus, if I make no mistake:

Polus: What? May I not speak at what length I please?

Socrates: It would indeed be hard on you, my good friend, if, on coming to Athens, the one spot in Greece where there is the utmost freedom of speech, you alone should be denied it. But look at my side. Would it not be hard on me also, if I may not go away and refuse to listen, when you speak at length and will not answer the question. (Gorgias, 461e)

But then I cannot for the life of me think why Smith does not simply refuse to listen. Perhaps he hereby sets a cunning, socratic riddle for me to solve. He feels I have not answered the question.

Another bite at the ‘conservatives in academe’ apple it is, then. Yes, it has been nibbled by everyone, right down to the core. (Especially liked Harry’s post.) But the core is interesting.

[click to continue…]

Greatest Dylan songs

by Chris Bertram on March 2, 2004

Head over to Normblog for “another of Norm’s polls”: , this time on Bob Dylan’s best songs. You have up to five, but no more than five votes. My own entry?

bq. Visions of Johanna
Stuck inside of Mobile
Desolation Row
It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Gates of Eden

All from just three (consecutive) albums. In my view, despite a brief return to form with _Blood on the Tracks_ , Dylan’s subsequent output has been pretty mediocre and doesn’t compare to those wonderful albums just after he discovered the ‘lectricity whose ghost howls in the bones of her face. But I know others disagree (strongly).

Nigh-related guests

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2004

“Kerim Friedman”: has an interesting idea; rather than inviting guest-bloggers to come on board for a period of a week or so (as we and the Volokhs do) he’s inviting academics to come on board for just one post, a mini-essay on some topical subject. As he says:

bq. Often I’ll see academics post short statements on professional e-mail lists which I feel deserve wider attention, or I’ll see news story on a topic which I know someone else would handle better than myself. Unfortunately, many of my efforts in this direction are in vain, since most academics aren’t yet comfortable with the format of a blog. The idea of rapidly responding to current events, or popularizing a specific idea without the extensive preparation and editing that goes into a published article scares a lot of scholars – not to mention the fact that they are just too busy.

It’s an interesting way of getting academics to dip their toes in the blogosphere, and I imagine it will be attractive to a lot of people. Most professors have more ideas rattling around in their head than they’ll ever be able to write up in articles. As Brian “says”:, blogging is a nice way to play with ideas that you think are interesting, but that you’ll never have time to develop properly, or even just to help flesh out a thought that’s still in its early stages. Even if most academics don’t want to start their own blog, I imagine that a fair few of them wouldn’t mind hiving off their excess ideas by posting occasionally on somebody else’s. It’ll be interesting to see how Kerim’s experiment works out (not that I think we’ll be moving that way ourselves anytime soon).

Counting in Swaledale

by Harry on March 2, 2004

The late great Jake Thackray has a song, Old Molly Metcalf, in which he describes a local quirky way of counting sheep in Swaledale (Yorkshire). The shepherds apparently count(ed) as follows:

bq. Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip, Azar, Sazar, Akka, Cotta, Dik
Yanadik, Channadik, Thetheradik, Metheradik, Bumfit, Yanabum, Chanabum, Thetherabum, Metherabum, Jiggit.

I first heard the song long ago, and at that time still remembered a colloquial counting system from my Welsh childhood, but I have now completely forgotten it (it wasn’t Welsh — it wasn’t one of those parts of Wales). There must be others. Does anyone know what I’m thinking of? And can anyone give the origins of the Yan, Chan, Tether, Mether, Pip system? (Google gives me one hit — the page with the lyrics of Old Molly Metcalf).