October 31, 2005

Cliopatria award nominations

Cliopatria, the group blog at the History News Network, is giving out awards for blogs. Nominations for different categories are now open (through November 30). I suppose this blog is eligible for some categories, but not in the group blog nor newcomer categories.

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Posted in Random comments at 5:54 AM (Permalink) |

October 28, 2005

Praise for laggardly editors

A very nice note today from an author of an article in Education Policy Analysis Archives:

It's amazing how much faster EPAA gets articles into print compared to paper journals... I have another paper that has been "in press" for well over a year now—and I haven't seen the galleys yet. So—thanks to you, Gene Glass and the EPAA team for creating a real alternative that every journal should emulate.

Aw, shucks. To be honest, I'm not feeling entirely on top of things, but that's because this is definitely a roller-coaster I've jumped on, and it's not going to stop. There are plenty of things I'd like to do better, faster, or more of (and maybe even start on!) with the journal. Thus far, I think I'm doing fairly well to keep up an article-every-two-weeks (or slightly better) average since the beginning of the semester. And I think that'll match the pipeline reasonably well, with maybe a slight break in the summer. Sometimes (as this week, when I'm still behind on grading in classes), I want another dozen or so hours in the week, but it's much better than in the spring.

So, is there such a thing as TMI from a journal editor?

More on "big social science"

Richard Steckel sent me the following response to my contrarian view of Big Social Science:

I have read your comments with interest and find that I agree with most of them. Big projects are a matter of degree, in both funding and numbers of people. Much very good work involves small budgets (or no external money
whatsoever) and a handful of people. I am certainly not trying to marginalize this type of work; among other things I participate regularly in this type of research.

But you would be surprised on how many big budget projects are now underway in social science history, much less the physical and biological sciences. I don't think the funding prospects for SSH [social-science history] are as dim as you paint them. And I have ideas for increasing the funds, which I will cover in my talk.

It's very nice of him reply thoughtfully (if briefly), and we'll see what discussion evolves next week in Portland. I look forward to it!

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Posted in Research at 7:02 PM (Permalink) |

Bedfellows, amicus briefs, John Roberts, and Hosty

Interestingly enough, I've read absolutely nothing on the blogosphere yet about the collection of signers for FIRE's amicus brief supporting certiorari in the appeal of Hosty v. Carter (that's a page from the Student Press Law Center describing the case). One of the signers is David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom, and now the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has joined the brief.

As I've written before, my concerns about appealing Hosty is the potential for it to open up opportunities for the Court to weaken academic-freedom. At the time, O'Connor had just resigned, and I had no idea that we'd go through the shuffle we have over the past 4 months. But given Roberts's professional background representing universities, as well as his questions in the Garcetti v. Ceballos oral arguments earlier this month, my concern is at least moderately warranted. Roberts is more familiar with the arguments put forward by university administrators than other justices, and the Hosty case provides some opening for administrators to argue that academic freedom is an institutional rather than an individual right (an issue the AAUP legal staff is concerned about). Roberts's work in defending affirmative action is consistent with the view that institutional officers are best fit to make decisions, and while it is unlikely that Hosty or FAIR v. Rumsfield would be decided on such matters, I would not be surprised at all if a Hosty opinion or concurrence by Roberts inserts such an argument as dictum—not legally binding but dangerous nonetheless as a signal to the federal circuit courts.

Having said that, if the Court grants cert, I wish the appellants the best of luck. The opinion by the circuit court was wrong on its merits, and despite my concerns about an appeal on tactical grounds, I'm with the Student Press Law Center and Harvey Silvergate's recent column on the substance of the issue.

Which leads to an interesting question, about the FIRE amicus brief and its signers, which include groups avowedly hostile towards the academic freedom of faculty (Horowitz's group and Accuracy in Academia, to take two examples). Some will inevitably read the combination as proof that FIRE is insufficiently aware of the dangers posed by these groups. Personally, I don't take FIRE's soliciting or accepting signers as evidence of anything in FIRE except a professional desire to present a broad front in the brief and the signers' taking advantage of a political opportunity (to be blunt). And amicus-brief politics can be strange; I remember hearing from one professor in grad school that a particular brief was carefully crafted to be signed only by presidents and former presidents of major professional associations, precisely for the gravitas.

However, I am concerned that other defenders of academic freedom might be scared away from this case because of this coalition. I can hear it now: Who wants to agree with David Horowitz or Accuracy in Academia? That enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking would be dead wrong. It's one thing to stay silent on the issue of appealing the case—I think I've stated some good reasons to be cautious at least for this year—but if the Court takes up the case, it's essential that everyone stand on the right side (with students, here).

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:52 PM (Permalink) |

October 27, 2005

Whose choice?

A first cynical response by one British parent to Tony Blair's education-reform speech promising more parental choice:

It appears that the education bill basically does the complete opposite of what they're saying. Schools will have the freedom to select—but not by ability. LEAs [Local Education Agencies] are not being stripped of their powers, they're being extended—all they're losing is the word "education" in their title. "New powers for parents" is the right to be consulted (and ignored). Schools will "employ their own staff"—but only under the national pay/conditions agreements. And funding will still come from the local councils from which they're supposed to be being "freed." "Our three priorities are doublespeak, doublespeak, doublespeak" one might say...

I know Phil, so maybe I'm biased, but he's generally a sharp fellow.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:42 AM (Permalink) |

October 25, 2005

Fixing NCLB?

In Jenny D.'s blog is a question about fixing NCLB, which has started a bunch of pontificating. So I added my own as a comment and then realized I needed to bombard my 0.3737365 readers with it. In essence, major policy questions about NCLB are about two things: the shape of accountability and the federal-state relationship. Elsewhere, I've described my concerns about Florida's particular system and accountability in general, but it's been a few years, and this is a good excuse for some rethinking. Warning: this is not really about NCLB but about my cynical observations regarding accountability in general and federal-state relationships.


  1. Accountability should focus on three questions: are we expecting the right things from students, are students meeting those expectations, and what needs to change so the answers to the first two questions are yes? Any system that doesn't focus the attention of teachers on those questions is bound to fail.
  2. I'm convinced that any high-stakes system will distort teaching in some ways. It may provide incentives for some schools and systems, but there will also be puerile attempts to triage students, teach to the test, and game the system with student rolls and other things. Any system that does not take this distortion into account is bound to fail in some critical ways, and anyone who pretends that teaching to the test and gaming the system doesn't exist is channeling former FEMA head Mike Brown. There is currently no systematic way of gauging distortion except by observation and shrewd guessing about schools as institutions.
  3. There is a fundamental tension between gauging the achievement status of students and their growth. As Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick point out in Chapter 4 of The American Dream and the Public Schools, emphasizing one over the other is dangerous. But it's not a matter of figuring out the right formula, as some propose by combining status with growth measures. It's a political problem. Let's imagine that we make very explicit the desire to close the achievement gap. "You, there! Disproportionately white, middle-class suburbs! We want the achievement of your students to grow over the next 5 years, but only a little, so everyone else in your area can catch up with you!" What do you think the response would be, if we phrased things that clearly?

Federal-state relationships

  1. The federal government has been most influential in shaping local behavior when acting as a guarantor of civil rights in some way. The wisest thing is to shrink the federal government's role in NCLB to that and a supporter of research, rather than trying to make the Secretary of Education into a national superintendent. On the other hand, unlike David Tyack and Larry Cuban (most prominently in their 1995 book Tinkering toward Utopia), I don't believe that top-down efforts are sui generis flawed. Their picture is colored by top-down accountability efforts, I suspect, and they would have to change the answer if asked to apply their reasoning to civil-rights laws.
  2. The Bush administration is only the most crass administration in hiding and manipulating data to serve petty political purposes in education. Don't expect it to end in 2009, even if other presidents don't try to buy journalists.
  3. Research and dissemination efforts should be funded solely on peer review, and primarily field-initiated. Over the last 15 years, centers and other less-competitive contests have dominated grants and contracts on the research side, and it's just shameful. It would be a wise thing if the federal government stopped funding anything claiming to be a national center for about 5-10 years and put the whole funding scoop into peer-reviewed, field-initiated studies.

"And so ends my catechism..."

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Posted in Education policy at 6:18 PM (Permalink) |

October 20, 2005

Door-to-door philosophers

Thanks to a student who compared Descartes's God existence proofs to evangelists, I had perhaps what should be a Monty Python skit of door-to-door philosophers pop into my head:

Rorty: I'm sorry to trouble you, but it's very important that I offer you some practical truth today.
Resident: Look, I had John-Paul Sartre peddling his Being and Nothingness yesterday morning, and I still haven't digested existentialism. Can you come 'round next week?
Rorty: Can I at least have a few minutes— [door slams!]
Resident: Pesky philosophers!

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Posted in Random comments at 8:51 AM (Permalink) |

October 19, 2005

NAEP, NCLB, and hype

Today's release of the latest 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores has brought a predictable flurry of attention focused on the tepid changes since NCLB. Quoted in the Washington Post article is Tom Loveless, pointing out that the trends look pretty similar whether you're breaking it into the pre-2002 or post-2002 data.

The immediate forecast for the rest of the day and tomorrow: considerable spinning in the wonkosphere and blogosphere. I'd rate it as Category 3 on the Spin-Simper Scale, likely to blow away brains that are not firmly tied down to reality. It's not likely to reach catastrophic spin, though.

If you do think NAEP is an accurate measure of achievement at the state level, then low-stakes and high-stakes states look more similar than different in recent years, at least on first inspection. (You can delve into trend data for states and easily compare Connecticut and Florida, which are two lines apart.) There will be considerable chewing on the data, I suspect.

And there are some reasons to be cautious about NAEP as perfectly representative. Better than alternatives? Sure. But there are differences in coverage and exclusion rates. And the various threshold points (e.g., basic and proficient) are relatively meaningless ordinal category markers. Caveat lector.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:33 PM (Permalink) |

A contrarian definition of big social-science history

In crafting the call for papers for this year's Social Science History Association annual meeting, incoming SSHA President Richard Steckel asked SSHA members and networks to think about the meaning of "big social science history," defined in the call as "large collaborative research projects within and across disciplines" roughly tied to social-science history. In some ways, this call was a reflection of the original mission of SSHA, to which this year's call for papers referred, and perhaps asking us to evaluate those large research projects.

But Steckel also asked us to dream big. In network meetings, he referred to multimillion-dollar grants in medicine and other fields and framed the call for papers as a thought experiment: "Networks are encouraged to imagine the research program they would conduct with a multi-million dollar grant."

Since I've recently finished a collaborative project among 5 historians of education, 3 sociologists, 1 criminologist, several grad students, and a partridge in a pear tree (though the partridge is not a coauthor in the book that will be coming out), and because I have benefitted indirectly from other collaborative (data-collection) projects, I think I have some experience with today's collaboration, including the prospects for multimillion-dollar grants. And while I will not discount the possibilities of getting large grants, I think Steckel framed the issue too narrowly at last year's meeting. Because the SSHA annual meeting is half a month away, I'm putting out this contrarian definition in hopes of starting a dialogue before the meeting (and one I hope will extend through the meeting).

Framing the issue as one of multimillion-dollar grants was inapt for several reasons and conflicts with the questions raised elsewhere in the call for papers:

  1. Multimillion-dollar grants have large price tags for very specific reasons tied to the needs of the projects, not to the intellectual integrity of the work. Below, I'll describe multimillion-dollar social-science research projects worth every penny and more, but size only matters to the spam in our inbox and ambitious institutional officers who look at federal funding figures. Medical research requires labs, technicians, physicians and nurses for treatment studies, and so forth. Engineering research requires labs, expensive equipment that has a limited life, and technicians. There are social-science history projects that require such funding, but they're generally data-collection efforts. Those are incredibly important, but that requires a different definition of "big social-science history," one I propose below.
  2. Multimillion-dollar grants in social-science history are inconsistent with the current research funding environment, for the most part. Maybe other countries are more generous, but the big federal funding agencies in the U.S. (NSF, NIH) aren't as free with their money as we might like in our fantasies. Funded NSF project budgets are routinely shrunk in negotiation. And while I love the NIH's modular budget philosophy, that only applies for small and moderate grants (I think $250,000 is the cap for modular budgeting at NIH). The last time that the major funder in my area (the Spencer Foundation, sponsoring disciplinary research in education) dangled a few million dollars to several groups, it was in 1999 and early 2000, and the grants that eventually came out of that initiative shrank to shoestring size.
  3. The type of collaborative work funded by multimillion-dollar grants is frequently targeted at specific projects with well-defined research questions. I love well-defined research questions, but is this the only definition of fruitful collaboration? I'm not speaking of the normal development of an area of literature but unusual projects (topical conferences, summer workshops, collaborative volumes) that can move a field but neither need huge gobs of cash nor the type of research question that focus grant proposals.
  4. The multimillion-dollar model is inappropriate for most faculty and other researchers we want to engage in SSHA in the future. In the past 30-40 years, more teaching faculty across the nation have been expected to carry on active research, and a far higher proportion are on regional state campuses of public university systems. SSHA is like most other academic bodies and draws disproportionately from institutions that give faculty significant time for research. While we talk about significant research, there is a growing body of scholars who face research demands with little infrastructure on their own campuses apart from an office, a computer, and maybe a few hundred dollars of travel funds per year. Few of them have the institutional resources necessary to draw such grants, and yet they can both contribute greatly to social-science history.
  5. A multimillion-dollar model will preferentially affect some disciplines and tools, by the argument I presented above in #1. The tool for which money can most easily and legitimately be requested is GIS. I love GIS as a tool. I want it well-funded for basic data collection, such as the National Historical Geographic Information System, as well as good individual projects. But not every good research project is a GIS project, and not every collaboration requires or can feasibly use GIS. This is suggested by the abstracts available with the preliminary program for the meeting. Apart from the roundtable sessions (which are skewed a bit towards GIS), I could only identify one or two paper abstracts not associated with GIS where a multimillion-dollar investment seemed to be part of the research agenda. Abstracts are not papers, and I hope to be proved wrong in Portland.

Given these concerns, I hope that the discussion of big social-science history will veer away from the size of desired grants and instead towards the environment necessary for fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration. Let me start with an abstract but serviceable definition. Big social-science history is interdisciplinary collaboration in history that can create, develop, or support a research agenda that would not be possible by researchers acting alone. Big social-science history should focus on collaboration and infrastructure that makes research possible. Big social-science history makes the tools and end results widely available to researchers and other readers worldwide.

Let me give some ideas that look like big social-science history to me. Some of these exist already and will be discussed in sessions at the SSHA annual meeting. Some don't.

  1. Data-collection and archiving projects such as the Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample projects at the University of Minnesota. A few weeks after the National Science Board published its Long-Lived Data Collections report, we should see data collection as the foundation of big social-science history. Any faculty member with skills in SAS or SPSS can sit in a tiny office, download huge datasets, and manipulate them on today's computers. Today, I can replicate in a few hours what took me months to do with a mainframe in 1990-91. In essence, any time I download a data set, I'm involved in a collaborative relationship with those who collect and maintain the data. Or, rather, I'm benefitting from that infrastructure. With these huge collections, any scholar around the globe with a decent computer can engage in big social-science research that would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1970s.

    The reason why one should focus on these large-scale data collection projects is because they require a certain amount of expertise in organizing the work effectively, and because local projects can still be done using this model. I hope Steve Ruggles and others of his ilk might be interested in spreading the Secrets of Data Collection and Management for projects of smaller scope... or might be willing to take on the digitizing of local data.

  2. Data "digesting" projects with end results free on the web. These exist with contemporary data (e.g., Current Population Survey reports and data), and it's essential to create professional approbation (or a brownie-point market) for these in social-science history. They require multi-year, large grants, with the clear expectation that the resulting data sets and reports will be available online, free to anyone. This expectation will require a change in the norms of historical scholarship dissemination, which currently favor books over all other ways of disseminating research. Why is it important to create a new norm? There is currently a long-delayed project of this sort in social-science history that Amazon lists (pre-publication) for $825. Who will buy it, other than libraries? Who will read and use it, other than those of us who still venture to libraries? The editors are well-meaning researchers who started the project with a model of big social-science history that would have worked well in the 1980s because there were no other options then. But there are now, and deadtree statistical compilations that you and I can never have at home or in our office are truly dinosaurs.
  3. Online scholarly encyclopedias. For some years, I was surprised at the fad of encyclopedias among some publishers, and then I became irritated. This type of work is precisely the collaborative scholarship that should be online, refereed, and updated. Typically, scholarly encyclopedias are highly mixed in quality, because editors can't get writers for all entries without dredging for authors. Then you're stuck with an encyclopedia with a major entry that ignores huge swaths of historiography. And then it's obsolete within five years. But with online publication, everything changes. If you don't like an entry? Write a competing one that gets refereed! There are unmediated (or semi-mediated) versions of this on the internet, commonly known as wikis (such as Wikipedia. But we can do better! And we should.
  4. Working-papers archives for historians, with the infrastructure necessary for archiving commentaries and make metadata available. Some version of this exists for physicists and economists, though I'm not sure if they have commenting and metadata attached that would allow such archives to be used by academic library software. Similarly, someone needs to collect dissertation abstracts and metadata in a publicly-available site that could be folded into academic library software.
  5. Online communities centered around areas of interest, where scholars around the globe can discuss topics of mutual interest and ... hey! That's H-Net. (Speaking of which, you can donate to support this infrastructure for Big Social-Science History with just a few clicks.)

None of these look like the "big social-science history" projects that were legends when I was in grad school. I don't know what the budget for the Philadelphia Social History Project was, but the time for that type of project is probably over. Its data collection was important, but that's different from the project as a whole. We need to conceive of big social-science history in ways that faculty around the globe can engage in it. I take Professor Steckel at his word in the gist of the call for papers—we need to evaluate and think about it as a whole, with large ambitions—and hope that this is a reasonable prod for the debate.

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Posted in Research at 10:32 AM (Permalink) |

October 18, 2005

Who understands peer reviewing?

In the last few months, I've sent out a sprinkling of manuscripts for Education Policy Analysis Archives to folks outside the normal spheres of academe—not only those in think tanks who generally understand reviewing processes because they often submit to refereed journals, but also those in the surrounding "wonkosphere" (for want of a better word), whom I think would understand refereeing. In two cases, from individuals I generally respect, I've received e-mails that indicate they don't get the concept. "I'm not sure why you want me to review this. Don't publish it!" ran the spirit of one e-mail. "You wouldn't be doing your journal a favor, because of the following errors:..." So I thanked my correspondent for doing exactly what I asked by providing me a reality-check. Much to her credit, she replied to indicate she got it. I think.

Here are the rules of refereed journals:

  1. Not everything submitted is published.
  2. Nothing published is perfect.
  3. The editor(s) dispose(s) of some portion of manuscripts before anyone else sees them, for a variety of reasons.
  4. Referees are sometimes cranky and sometimes misread pieces of a manuscript.
  5. Editors take referee reports very seriously and still ignore a certain portion of them.
  6. There is no law requiring a certain number of reports, or a certain quality of reporting, before an editor makes a decision.
  7. Journals differ in what precisely is blind to either referees or authors.
  8. Thick skins are required when reading reviews. Einstein apparently got huffy when faced with peer review for the first time in the 1930s. (Thanks to Ralph Luker for the pointer.) (See also the item above about variations in refereeing practices.)
  9. There is no natural law about refereeing, but it sharpens published works, and Plato would approve of it. (See Book 7 of The Republic—no, not the cave allegory, but the part later where the Socrates character is discussing the proper training of philosopher-kings.)
  10. There are suspicions in academe that journals that charge page costs also accept a higher proportion of manuscripts.
  11. There is a suspicion in this editor that fields with higher needs to demonstrate status sometimes have obsessive-compulsive disorders over refereeing processes. The main route for getting new ideas into circulation in physics is not refereed. Then again, physics is a Science Biggie that doesn't have to prove itself to anybody.
  12. I edit a journal that is refereed, and I don't anticipate ending the refereeing for a simple reason: I don't know everything or even nearly everything I need to know to make publication decisions.

The test on this material is next Friday.

October 16, 2005

Midterm Commandments

Following Miriam Burstein, I'll see how many commandments I need to etch in stone for my students at midterm time:

  1. I am Knowledge, Thy Aim, which brings you out of the land of ignorance.
  2. Thou shalt have no mundane priorities before me (once your bills are paid). Thou shalt not make graven images, pseudo-books, or Cliff-Notes. Thou shalt not bow down to them or buy them. For I Knowledge am a jealous god, visiting the ignorance of the parents upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me.
  3. Thou shalt not take knowledge in vain or treat it as an object of conspicuous consumption, or thou shalt find thyself in the checkout counter with a volume of Richard Bach.
  4. Remember the study time and keep it. I really don't care how many days a week you study, except you shouldn't forget that a week only has seven days, nimwit, and the half-day you spent in a daze after the party still counts.
  5. Honor thy teachers, in order that the days you're in school aren't cut short for stupidity.
  6. Thou shalt not kill the language.
  7. Thou shalt not plagiarize.
  8. Thou shalt not copy in the middle of an exam.
  9. Thou shalt not tattle.
  10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's Stuff, because there are libraries that share information.
Should there be any others?
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Posted in Teaching at 9:55 PM (Permalink) |

October 8, 2005

Age-specific graduation rates

After too many months, I've finally carved out a few hours to play with the data Florida's DOE sent me, a collection of individual-level data on enrollment, age, grade level, sex, race/ethnicity, lunch status, and withdrawal code (including different types of diplomas). The data isn't clean (especially when looking at the birth years), but it's important to see what can be done with the different file structures, and an initial, very draft and obviously not quite accurate graph of age-specific graduation rates is instructive:


(Click picture for larger version. PDF version of graduation-rate graph is also available.)

(For those not used to event-exposure rates, the rates over 1 are not errors. An event-exposure rate has the denominator of the collective exposure to a certain event, usually measured in person-years. So if an eighteen-year-old graduated two months after her birthday, she only added a sixth of a year (0.1666... person years) to the total exposure. If a majority of 18-year-olds in school graduate, and they only contribute on average half a year of exposure, then the rate is going to be over 1.)

There are a few notable patterns. First, the non-standard diplomas become an important feature only with 19-year-olds and those older. In other words, most people don't get either GEDs or attendance certificates until after 19. Second, the bump at age 22 (and the increasing gap between standard and other diplomas) is from the small number of students with disabilities who receive services until the end of the school year after they turn 22.

More work needed... much more work. But it's time this weekend to turn to other tasks in EPAA and grading.

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Posted in Research at 6:19 AM (Permalink) |

October 6, 2005

Productivity in the midst of chaos

After my car adventure yesterday (what? a link to my personal blog? oh, well—the secret's out for all 1.273510... readers), it turns out I wasn't half-bad in the productivity department. I sent out a rejection notice (which required piecing together a picture from five reviews), loaded the new version of SAS on my work laptop, started looking at Florida 1999-2000 and 2000-01 data for the attrition/graduation analysis, edited materials for one class's interview project, and a few other odds and ends. I'm behind on reading some revisions for EPAA, as well as other things (it's an eternal job, so I'm very glad it's enjoyable), but we have an article to come out tomorrow, and the following one is mostly put together (need feedback from the author), so that's in pretty good shape. I need to do some union stuff in the next day, teach, pick up my son and then take everyone and the toad to the vet for an afternoon appointment. And I'm sure there are other things as well that's not currently in mind.

This is why I try not to keep to-do lists in my head (thanks to A.G. Rud, and that's credit for helping, not responsibility for my absent-mindedness).

Oh, and there's an interesting e-mail correspondence that's come from my union e-mail newsletter item about academic freedom. I wish it included the administration, but you can't have everything that's sensible in life. More later...

Added later: Hmmmn... I didn't intend to give off the impression that writing a rejection letter for a journal was productive in itself—more a matter that any letter that isn't an outright acceptance requires some care in giving guidance to the author(s).

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Posted in Random comments at 6:47 AM (Permalink) |