From the monthly archives:

June 2008

Online study groups: Threat or menace?

by Clay Shirky on June 30, 2008

Thanks to Henry for the invitation to guest-post. I’m a long-time reader and admirer of CT, and my goal this week is to ask a couple of questions that I don’t think have obvious answers, but which I think are quite important to the development of a networked society, and about which CT readers may have a lot to say.

The first question is pedagogical: it’s obvious, both from observing my own students and from paying attention to social media, that the work students have always done in groups is now migrating online. What, if anything, should the academy do to adapt?

The poster child for this change, of course, is Chris Avenir, who was the admin for a large Facebook group discussing chemistry homework from Ryerson University. <a href=””>Avenir was threatened with expulsion</a> (though he was not expelled), and was given a 0 out of 10 for the homework being discussed on the site.

While the decision over his expulsion was still pending, Avenir said “But if this kind of help is cheating, then so is tutoring and all the mentoring programs the university runs and the discussions we do in tutorials.”

After deciding not to expel Avenir, Technology Dean James Norrie said “Are we Luddites here at Ryerson? No, but our academic misconduct code says if work is to be done individually and students collaborate, that’s cheating, whether it’s by Facebook, fax or mimeograph.”

Now, my natural inclination is to think Avenir is right and Norrie is wrong — that learning is a basically social activity, and that the model that treats the effort as an exercise in quality control of individual minds is not merely silly but hypocritical — as Avenir notes, discussion, both formal and informal, is a large part of the pedagogical landscape.

And yet I also know that there are fields where problems are complex but answers are simple — there are an infinite number of mathematical formulae for which 42 is the answer, but your possession of that number only operates as proof that you understand a particular formula if I also trust that you weren’t just handed the answer.

So, to adopt The Economist’s old motto of “Simplify, then exaggerate”, here’s a false dichotomy: does the growth of networked support for student-to-student study mark the appearance of the previously invisible but critical engine of learning, or will its normalization set up a harmful social gradient, where nerd kids give likeable kids the right answers with no work?

And should the response on the part of the academy be a) “We should support this important change”, b) “We have never really cared what students do outside class, and this is no different”, or c) “Deep socialization of study is a core threat to academic integrity, so this must be stopped”?

Guestblogger: Clay Shirky

by Henry Farrell on June 30, 2008

We’d like to welcome Clay Shirky, who will be guestblogging with us for a week. Clay is a consultant, journalist, sometime academic, and general _provocateur._ His recent book, Here Comes Everybody (Powells, Amazon) is a very good, well-written and interesting take on how the Internet has lowered the transaction costs of group formation, and the consequences this has for politics, commercial relatoins etc. It’s one of the best books on the Internet that I’ve read in the last few years. We’re happy to have him on board.

Taking the Mickey

by Henry Farrell on June 30, 2008

More on the Mickey Tax, courtesy of a set of talking points forwarded by my person in the Travel Industry Association, which are (to put it mildly) quite unconvincing on the major points of contention. I’ve decided to adopt this piece of legislation in the same way that some people and organizations adopt highways – expect more on this over the coming months. Also, NB that this is one of those activities where the Internet really _has_ changed everything – it would have been infeasible for me to investigate this stuff without Congresspedia, online access to Her Majesty’s Government’s taxation guidance documents for airlines etc. Talking points and response below the fold.
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Gender codes in daily life

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 30, 2008

Recently I was talking with a political philosopher, who is based in Italy, about “my reasons for supporting birthleave for fathers”: He told me that in Italy parenthood is strongly gendered, and gave the example of a note put up at his kids’s school, stating that ‘Today Mothers should pick up their children at 2 pm rather than 4 pm’ (or something very similar). If I ever were to read such a note, I would be outraged that the school would assume that it could only be mothers who would get the kids from school; he, as a father, was outraged that the school assumed that there would be no fathers picking up the kids from school.

In my view there are plenty gendered messages in daily life, and many of the people I encounter are not aware of the gender codes they create, reinforce, and spread. I few months ago I thought I should write down during one year all the public and private gendered codes and messages that I encountered in daily life and explain why I find them problematic (or not). For time reasons, and perhaps also because it would be difficult pursuing such a project without violating people’s right to privacy, I haven’t embarked on that project yet, though I may do so one day. I think such a gender codes diary would show how many gender codes surround us, many of which are uncritically absorbed by consumers and citizens. Which was the last one you encountered?

No idea more obscure and uncertain

by Kieran Healy on June 30, 2008

You only have to hang around the world of social science research- or policy-related blogging for a few hours before you come across someone willing to snottily inform you, or some other luckless interlocutor, that although the finding of this or that paper may appeal to you, nevertheless don’t you know that Correlation Is Not Causation. Often this seems to be the only thing they know about statistics.

I grudgingly admit that it’s a plausible-sounding rule, and in the textbooks and stuff. But, to be honest, I read it too many times in various posts and comments threads the other day, and in my raging pique I found myself thinking that the next time it happened I would say, “That’s completely backwards: in fact, causation is just correlation” and fling a copy of Hume’s first Enquiry at their head. Or at the screen, I suppose, but that image is less satisfying, because now who’s the crank on the internet, etc.

This Halloween when we take the kids Trick-or-Treating, I will dress up as Correlation, as befits a social scientist. My wife will of course be Causation.

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain

by Harry on June 29, 2008

A short appreciation by Phil Jupitus available for a short time here.

For newcomers, here are renditions of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Life on Mars (beautiful, actually), and, for the many Dick Barton fans out there, the Devil’s Gallop. I can’t find Anarchy in the UK, I’m afraid, you’ll have to see them live for that.


by John Q on June 29, 2008

The eternal trench warfare between teachers and students over exams and other forms of assessment has long been a popular topic here at CT (unsurprisingly, viewed mostly from the teacher’s side of the barbed wire).

Having been on both sides at different times, I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in various subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven universities (in Australia at any rate) back to heavy reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests. But the real question is why universities spend so much time and effort on marks and grading, with the consequence of continuous low-level war between teachers and students.

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Skill-Biased Diaper Change

by Kieran Healy on June 28, 2008

Megan McArdle asks,

Why don’t babysitters make much money?

And answers,

Supply and demand. Supply side: it’s not skilled labor. It make take talent (like the patience of a saint), but the actual skills of doing laundry, spooning formula into one’s mouth, and changing a diaper are not hard to learn.

Taking care of the rugrats might not be brain surgery, although it does raise some interesting questions — not pursued in the post — about how much, net of skill considerations, you should be willing to pay someone not to drop, starve or otherwise neglect your child. But really I just wanted to say that if Megan is ever in need of a child-care provider, I hope she’ll take care to pick someone skilled enough not to be in the habit of spoon-feeding themselves formula. Or, indeed, of spoon-feeding it to the baby.

Mickey Tax Update

by Henry Farrell on June 26, 2008

When I saw that the Mickey Tax1 issue had been taken up by “Atrios”: and “Kos”:, I guessed that it wouldn’t be long before I started seeing some pushback. A former student of mine did “some research”: a couple of years ago that suggests that Kos is the most widely read blog on the Hill, with a fair readership among Republicans (who want to see what’s coming down the pike) as well as Democrats, and I’d imagine that Markos’ fulminations got some attention in the right places. Sure enough, I got an email last night from a flack at the Travel Industry Association (the lobby group that’s been most heavily involved in pushing the Mickey Tax), offering to set me right on my various misconceptions about this Act. I replied that I would be happy to receive any proposed corrections/new information, but reserved the right to publish them on this blog. I haven’t gotten any response and don’t expect one, but will update this post if I’m wrong.

In the meantime, I’d like to take advantage of CT’s cross-national readership, and encourage those of you who live in visa-waiver countries to hassle your politicians, and write to your newspapers about the Mickey Tax. This, unlike the Iraqi translators appeal, is not a life or death issue, but it _will_ lead to substantial amounts of money ($200 million) being transferred from tourists’ pockets to an outrageous boondoggle fund unless it gets stopped.

I _particularly_ encourage you to use the terms ‘Mickey Tax’ or (Markos’s coinage) ‘Disney Tax’ in your communications. I imagine that the fervor of the Disney corporation for this particular rip-off would be dampened if incoming tourists to the US came to understand the political origins of the fee, and were able to draw the relevant conclusions about where to spend, or not to spend, their hardwon money once they had gotten in. The terms ‘Mickey Tax’ and ‘Disney Tax’ seem to me to draw these causal connections in a straightforward and useful way. Of course, Irish people in particular may think that the Mickey Tax is even more outrageous than it is, but that doesn’t necessarily seem to me to be a bad thing.

1 Term a trademark of This Blog, although I’m grateful to Atrios for seeing that it made for a better title than throwaway aside.

Shock of the New

by John Holbo on June 26, 2008

So I got up this morning and, reading the pages of the venerable “Atlantic Monthly” over coffee, learned that – some hours earlier – my young daughters, ages 6 and 4, half a world away, had said something amusing.

Ain’t it just the 21st Century, though?

(In my defense: I figured Belle was going to be way too busy to update the blog, so I didn’t check there first, before firing up Talking Points Memo and Matthew Yglesias – always my first reads. I did check iChat, but Belle wasn’t on.)

In fact, this is more a case of small world than future world, since Belle and I know Matthew Y. Anyway. What strange and futuristic experience have you had recently?

Gender differences in sharing creative content online

by Eszter Hargittai on June 25, 2008

This ArsTechnica write-up of some recent research of mine has received numerous votes on the recommendation site Digg in the last few hours. I wonder if it will make the front page of Digg, although as a Twitter contact of mine noted, since it’s not a top-10 list (nor, if I might add, does it cover Google or Apple), that may be unlikely.

The post reports on a study in which we found that male college students are more likely than their female counterparts to share creative content online even though both men and women in the sample are equally likely to create such content. However, when controlling for online skill, the gender differences in posting go away.

Gina Walejko and I published the paper “The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age” this Spring in the journal Information, Communication and Society. We examine the extent to which college students share creative content online and whether we can identify any systematic differences by user background. In particular, we looked at whether students create and share the following types of material: poetry/fiction, artistic photography, music, and video (both completely own and remixed in the case of the latter two), including both private and public sharing. [click to continue…]

Locus Winners

by John Holbo on June 25, 2008

Some good reads. The Locus Award winners have been announced.

Michael Chabon won for Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I thought it was ok – fun – a bit of a disappointment after Kavalier and Clay. What did you think? OK, I’ll write a short review to finish this post out. Now, on down the list.

Terry Pratchett, Making Money. Very funny, as usual, but sort of by-the-numbers.

I haven’t read Miéville’s Un Lun Dun or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. (Put them on the to-read list.)

Cory Doctorow’s “After The Siege” is magnificent. It’s a harrowing tale. It will definitely give you that ghastly, crazy, infowar siege of neverland feeling. I listened to it as a podcast, read by the author himself. I see that someone else has re-recorded it. Throw it on the iPod.

“Witch’s Headstone”, by Neil Gaiman. Haven’t read it.

“A Small Room in Koboldtown”, by Michael Swanwick. You can download it as a free PDF. (And here’s a podcast.) I guess I’m a bit surprised it won. It’s a funny genre mash-up. Hardboiled detective fiction, locked-room murder mystery, meets … well, I’ll quote the first paragraph: [click to continue…]

The Mickey Tax

by Henry Farrell on June 24, 2008

I was at a sort-of DC power lunch yesterday with staffers from the Hill (the first such lunch I’ve ever gone to, and likely to be the last for a while), and the conversation turned to a piece of legislation that’s being pushed hard by lobbyists for big players in the tourism industry, the so-called “Travel Promotion Act”: The Act is supposed to create a $200 million fund to promote tourism, by levying a charge on visitors to the US. The charge is non-trivial – the estimates I heard suggested that in order to raise $10 a head to give to the travel industry’s promotional fund, the government will likely have to impose a total fee of $25 to cover administrative overheads.

This seems to me to be one of the more straightforwardly stupid legislative proposals of the recent past. As someone who used to visit the US a lot before I became a permanent resident, I can testify that I would have found it extremely galling to have to fork over $25 to subsidize glossy brochures for the US tourist industry, and would have likely restricted my travel to the US as a result. For that matter, I’ve heard strong resentment expressed by US citizens who have to pay similar fees when they visit certain countries in Latin America. Even so, it sounds as though the bill has a lot of support – 44 senators are co-sponsoring it already.

This is one of those instances where public choice theory works – a number of big players in the tourist industry (whom, one suspects, will reap the lion’s share of the benefits) are trying to impose costs that will very plausibly hurt travel to the US as a whole, even as it directs more of the tourists who do come in their direction. The major villain in the story is the Disney Corporation – the _Washington Post_ ran a good story a few months ago, “Mickey Goes to Washington”:, on Disney lobbyists’ involvement in the campaign behind the proposed Act. The Act’s financial consequences are partly obscured because non-US citizens are expected to take a lot of the hit. But I hardly think that it will promote travel.

More generally, there should be some phrase or term for bills or proposals that are likely to have the opposite effect to that which their title suggests – this is hardly an unique phenomenon. Suggestions welcome in comments.

Update: Thanks to “Maurice Meilleur”: in comments, we have a winner. NEGISLATION (n): A legal act which, by design or accident, achieves the opposite effect to that which it purportedly intends. Examples include the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, and the Travel Promotion Act (the Mickey Tax Act) of 2008. See also _negulation_.

Update 2: Title changed to make it punchier

A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

by Kieran Healy on June 23, 2008

Chris Uggen, of the University of Minnesota, reports from the frontiers of collegiate apparel licensing agreements:

Victoria’s secret recently announced that minnversity-themed t-shirts, hoodies, and underwear will be sold as part of the company’s PINK collegiate collection. … however, the Minnesota Daily reveals that Goldy Gopher [the UMN mascot] will not be participating in the new loungewear line … Spokesgophers made clear that the clothing line is “not in step with the University’s values and focus” and that the Minnversity only “approves tasteful trademark requests.” … Though I wouldn’t want my university to be involved in anything distasteful, I know we can always use new revenue streams. Personally, I only purchase products that are in keeping with the Minnversity’s values and focus, such as my officially-licensed golden gopher “talking beer opener.”

Soft bigotry and low expectations

by Henry Farrell on June 23, 2008

So last week, the rightwing “phrase-du-jour”: was “I am aware of all Internet traditions.” “This week”:, it’s “John McCain is aware of the Internet” (via). I sense a certain moderating of ambition …