June 30, 2004

Kitsch memorials

With the death of Ronald Reagan, there were the inevitable "what is his place in history?" gabfests as well as proposals to put his name or face on everything from the $20 bill to Mount Rushmore. What was missing in the latter was a sense of perspective about memorial acts and sites as public events and places. We tend to think only of the monumental memorials and fail to look at memorialization in a systematic fashion. Who wants to think about the ironies in having New Jersey Turnpike stops named after Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer?

Maybe Kilmer deserved his, and the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop provides a great line for teachers forever more: "If you produce trite claptrap, your name may be more familiar to schoolkids for being on the New Jersey Turnpike than for what you've written." And when some people were upset that PATCO union-buster Reagan's name was attached to Washington's National Airport, I kidded that it was perfect: "Millions of passengers will associate his name with the white-knuckle flights over the District. It's how I felt for eight years; it's a unique form of public history."

But we should look at memorials more seriously, I think. (Yes, this would be a great dissertation or book topic in popular culture studies.) They are not just the austere Vietnam memorial, or the august sitting Lincoln in his memorial. They include everything from the tacky Mount Rushmore to postal stamps to stamps to the roadside memorials in Florida wherever someone dies in an auto accident (often festooned with flowers by family members).

Some memorials are elegant. Many are not. Instead of focusing on the appropriateness and elegance of proposed memorials, I think we should welcome a diversity of memorials, understanding that good taste is not a wise determinant of what makes a memorial. It certainly was the least of Ronald Reagan's concerns when he was alive.

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Posted in Random comments at 6:45 AM (Permalink) |

June 28, 2004

Academic blogging

I've discovered an interesting comment about this blog (and an implication about blogging) at Ralph Luker's March 17, 2004, Cliopatria group blog entry: "Dorn seems to post to his blog primarily to let his dean and his in-laws know what's going on. (I do my dean and in-law communicating separately and a little more privately.)" Hmmn... I'm delighted someone's reading this occasionally, but it's not for my dean (and my mother-in-law has been without a computer for some months).

Some people use blogs as places for public pronouncements, rhetoric, etc. That's fine. But if I spent most of my blog writing on stuff meant to be read by millions, I'd be ignoring some higher priorities for me in terms of teaching, research, and other matters. My hat is off to all those who write incredibly pithy items for most of their blog entries. But that's just not me.

More importantly, why is an historian assuming that there's only one purpose to blogging, and if it doesn't fit her or his box, it's ripe for ridicule? So much for the historical uses of diaries and journals, I suppose.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:15 AM (Permalink) |

June 24, 2004

Decisions, decisions

I'm doing significant course development work in the fall on an entirely distance-learning course, and for this I've been offered a rather nice stipend that comes from a federal grant. That's very nice, but I don't really want that stipend. (I'm also not sure that I can take it, since I'm teaching an overload course in the fall that also comes with some money.) I first asked for it to go into an account I control that I can use to hire students, or pay for equipment (like a Linux server for my teaching, yeah!), etc. But the federal grant won't allow that, which is fine and proper.

So, depending on whether I can accept any of that stipend at all, I'll be putting a chunk of it towards hiring a student for the project. That's all fine with me, since these days my most valuable commodity is time. The question is, given my idiosyncratic use of technology in teaching, and the steep learning curve involved with lots of tools I might be interested in, what can I ask a student to do in the fall, and how might that be mutually beneficial?

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Posted in Teaching at 2:37 PM (Permalink) |

June 6, 2004

Functional data analysis

Every once in a while, I choose some form of "brain candy" to read for work—something that's out of my field and that's just fun in some sense, because there's no pressure other than the challenge of reading something new. Because of something an editor suggested to me, I decided to see what functional data analysis is. Why is an historian reading this? It has to do with the net-flow research in that I'm really looking at a step function (net flow as a function of the grade) but one that one could smooth in various ways and then look at the smoothed curves as the object of analysis.

When I was at Vanderbilt for a postdoc and looking at curriculum-based measurement data for K-12 students, my brain candy at that time was looking at locally weighted regression as a smoothing device (1). Functional data analysis takes smoothing one step further by providing tools to make the smoothed curves differentiable.

Arbitrary? Certainly, but the advocates of functional data analysis point out that all analyses assume some specificity that really isn't there, including just the raw data. That willingness to transform data before analysis is the hallmark of John Tukey's exploratory approach. So, the argument goes, why not make some reasonable assumptions about an underlying function and see what you can make of that?


Cleveland, W. S. (1979) Robust locally weighted regression and smoothing scatterplots. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 74, 829-836.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:42 PM (Permalink) |