Persuasive and convincing

by Eric on April 18, 2013

When a book reviewer or manuscript referee describes an argument as “persuasive” or “convincing” without explaining exactly what it is that has persuaded or convinced, or alternatively what it would take to persuade or convince, I feel I’ve failed to get my money’s worth. I suspect I’m getting a purely subjective assessment dressed up in fancy language, and I’ve long had a hunch it’s been increasing in use, at least in my discipline.1

But inasmuch as I had only a hunch that irritatingly subjective language was increasingly used, I knew I was being terribly inconsistent, which troubled me. So at last I went to the data.

I searched JSTOR for instances of “persuasive” and “convincing” and their opposites by year in reviews published in the American Historical Review between 1958 and 2007. To weight the occurrences, I also searched AHR reviews by year for instances of the word “that,” reckoning this was a pretty neutral word to look for. I divided the former by the latter to get a sense of the frequency of subjective language in AHR book reviews. Below is the result, which I hope is more persuasive than my hunch.

The language of “persuasive” is on the increase. Unless I’ve made an Excel error.

1I also have a terrible prescriptivist annoyance over “persuaded … that” and “convinced … of” but we won’t get into it.

I’ve recently moved from Edinburgh to Bournemouth for a couple of months.Bournemouth is a bit tattier than I’d expected. I reckon 25% of the shop fronts nearby are vacant and the three hair salons I walk past each morning never seem to have more than one customer at a time. But the summer crowds aren’t yet here, and we have the gloriously long beach front to run and cycle along. And there’s always the breath-takingly odd New Forest national park just down the road. It’s like taking a trip back to childhood to round a New Forest corner at fifteen miles an hour and come face to face with a winter-coated donkey. Make the mistake of stopping the car and he’ll edge cheekily up to the window, baring his teeth to beg a free snack.

Bournemouth has a great system of public gyms, and as I’m on a short hiatus from paid employment (using the unexpected gift of 12 free weeks to write) I’ve discovered the wonder of daytime exercise classes. There is something utterly joyous about being at least ten years below the median age of a spinning session, and constantly dialing the bike down to keep up.

But being out of the army-wife bubble is hard. I won’t be going to two or three coffee mornings, then hosting my own and, hey presto, have met most of my local friends already. Last week, the only in-person conversation I had that wasn’t ‘here’s your change’ and ‘thanks very much’ was a rapidly-spinning-into-enthusiastically-shared-interests chat about steampunk with a guy in the Espresso Kitchen café. (I was re-reading Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City, and scribbling notes for the upcoming CT seminar on same.) Espresso Guy and I got to wondering if there are other kindred spirits about, and whether they might like to meet up for some rather excellent coffee in The Triangle in Bournemouth.

So, are there any CT readers on the south coast who would like to meet up at Espresso Kitchen at some point over the next week or so? Purely social agenda in mind, for chats about politics, books, and how nice it is that the People’s Republic of Tory have finally stopped broadcasting Thatcherite hagiography eight hours a day. The café can open late or serve food, and they’re open to hosting readings, book clubs, or just a few like-minded souls having a natter.

Children, and Chances

by Harry on April 18, 2013

The Boston Review symposium I pointed to last year on James Heckman’s “Promoting Social Mobility” is now out in book form as Giving Kids a Fair Chance. Its all still on the web, at least right now, but the book is cute and inexpensive. I’m curious what other people’s experience is, but I find that when I assign a book in class it gets read by more students, and more carefully, than if I assign something from the web; so I am planning to use it alongside Unequal Childhoods with my freshman class in the fall.

Schools, and Children

by Harry on April 18, 2013

There’s a very good piece by Jal Mehta in the Times last Sunday, reflecting on A Nation at Risk. He criticizes not teachers, but the profession of teaching:

Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.

By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

I’m very uneasy with his subsequent comparisons with countries that do better, though — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — which lack large swathes of relative poverty and, in a couple of cases authoritarian cultures. Its not as though these countries have developed technologies for teaching the kinds of student that American schools educate. But he makes an interesting point about why we know so little, and so little of what we do know is usable:

Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has estimated that other fields spend 5 percent to 15 percent of their budgets on research and development, while in education, it is around 0.25 percent. Education-school researchers publish for fellow academics; teachers develop practical knowledge but do not evaluate or share it; commercial curriculum designers make what districts and states will buy, with little regard for quality.

Anyway, there’s lots of good stuff, so read the whole thing.