January 12, 2010

Haiti earthquake

The major earthquake near Port-au-Prince has destroyed hundreds of buildings in the Haiti capital, probably killed thousands, and the news looks very bad. The Lambi Fund blog entry is brief and upsetting. If there's one good thing, it's that when I attempted to donate to the Lambi Fund, the form is hanging on submission, and I hope that's because too many people are trying to donate. I received an e-mail confirmation, so it looks like the donation went through.

The Twitter hashtag is apparently #haitiquake -- I'm preparing for a horrid few days of news, and this puts any of my petty woes in perspective.

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

When I was a young(er) adult, Elizabeth and I would visit her maternal grandparents for Thanksgiving. There were some significant differences between those meals and the Thanksgiving traditions I grew up with. First, Elizabeth's relatives could cook, and while my mother is a wonderful human being and could make sure that a bird was prepared in a way that didn't kill anyone other than the bird itself, there was a reason why the main meals I learned how to make when I was a teenager involved ramen. Second, at least as much effort was expended in that house in the Poconos on preparing foods that weren't the bird as on the bird itself. That was probably wise, since Elizabeth had been vegetarian for a few years before I traveled with her to her grandparents' house. But among other things, it meant that I had the opportunity to taste homemade pie baked the same day. (Baking was one of the other skills I never learned when growing up, though some of my mother's more distant relatives became bakers, and very good ones, too. The Food Thing was not my parents' thing, and that was fine, because as a result I became very familiar with the suburban pizza joint and the taco joint and eventually a broad range of cuisines outside my family's tradition of... okay, no tradition to speak of in terms of what could be made in a kitchen, though my maternal grandmother made something she called kugel, which had calories and in Douglas Adams's words was almost but not quite entirely unlike every other kugel I have eaten in my life. Did I also tell you why I blame sexism for my deprived taste buds in my youth? My maternal grandfather was a wonderful cook; I only had his cooking once, cold schav, and it was wonderful. But he was a man, and his wife cooked.)

Third -- and here is the part of cultural tolerance that anyone who is in a long-term relationship and visits the in-laws/other's family will understand --  Elizabeth's grandparents drank something strange. No, I don't mean that as a euphemism for alcoholism, or the fact that they had crystal that they obviously reserved for alcohol and enjoyed, which was all just fine with me, because I enjoy looking at glass with odd angles in it, and an occasional distilled beverage is just fine with me. I mean that they truly drank something strange on Thanksgiving: sweet pink champagne.

Elizabeth had warned me some weeks before we drove up State Route 9 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension before it was 476) through the Lehigh Valley and through a tunnel under a ridge and then along 209 and the left turn at Broadheadsville onto 115 to Effort (supposedly the Last Effort to gain a post office, now certainly one of those stations being closed), along the river, and up Merwinsburg Road to New York Blvd to the wood-plank house with the straight row of pine trees (another phenomenon Elizabeth had warned me about: there is something sacrilegious about a row of pine trees, though I knew it had been planted as a windbreak from the days that the street was a dirt road). Not only did her grandparents Margaret and Henry live in an exurban landscape in a part of the Poconos where you really wanted to wear warm and very bright clothing in late fall, and not only did her grandparents keep a loaded rifle on the steps leading down from the kitchen to the basement (what her grandparents could do with a loaded rifle when they weren't that steady on their feet at that point in their lives, I don't know, but they were used to it, while it probably kept me usefully nervous), but they stocked several bottles of sweet pink champagne in the cellar. My apologies to those who are particular about their terminology: I should probably call it sweetened pink sparkling wine rather than champagne, because I know that only the sparkling wine from grapes that grow in Champagne should be called champagne, but there was something horribly but perfectly incongruous about the term sweet pink champagne.

And they had their Thanksgiving dinner at 2 pm, while my family always had it in the evening. Elizabeth's grandmother Margaret would bustle around the kitchen for a few hours midday along with Elizabeth and her mother Peggy, and I would generally have my offered help gently refused with the excuse that there were already too many people in the kitchen, though I would be given several ceremonial tasks such as to bring the bottles of sweet pink champagne from the basement to the kitchen or to clear and set the table. (I am very grateful among other things today that I never had the task of ceremonially shooting off the rifle accidentally.) And we would sit down and pass plates around and eat some, and then the sweet pink champagne would be opened, and it would disappear down gullets.

And then almost inevitably, the weather would be cool but not frigid but very damp as Elizabeth and I alone or joined by Peggy would walk along New York Blvd. or down one of the paths along it in a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever perambulation in the late afternoon as the trees would drip down on us. And we would get back to the house around dark, have a small dinner an hour or two later, maybe a dessert when Elizabeth's uncle, aunt, or cousins might join us, and look at the ongepotchket Pennsylvania Dutch decorations that Margaret had acquired over the years and think about the house's ceilings that were about 4-5 inches too low for my taste (and I am not a tall man). A day or two later we would head back to the Philadelphia area, a country with which I was more familiar.

After Henry died a year or two before Elizabeth and I married, and Elizabeth's uncle and aunt moved down to West Virginia, Margaret moved to an assisted living facility near her son and daughter-in-law, and that house has probably passed through a few owners since. Margaret died in the late 1990s, and now Peggy is gone. And we have our own Thanksgiving routines in a suburban landscape in a place far from temperate lands where a fall harvest festival makes much sense, but we will see if any sweet potatoes grew unmolested this year in our yard, and we will make lots of food and maybe open a bottle of wine. My son is the pie fan, and he's made pumpkin pie on several Thanksgivings. My daughter will probably make succotash, and we will make several varieties of cranberry relish from raw cranberries. No pink champagne, but I'll be thinking of it.

I wish a restful Thanksgiving for everyone in the U.S. and an easy workday for everyone else. Don't go too crazy on the pie, and make sure to take a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever walk.

October 14, 2009

Don't exercise: you'll destroy the world

If you had asked me this morning what I expected from the latest round of NAEP math scores and what was going on in DCPS, I would have told you to expect NAEP math scores to increase at a snail's pace with loads of arguments about what that meant, that Michelle Rhee seemed to have decided at long last that working out a deal with Randi Weingarten was more important than a charismatic image, and that maybe we should focus on long-term issues more than evanescent news stories.

After I exercised midday ... and got dizzy and fainted slighty (I'm fine, don't worry, it's only a flesh wound) ... only one of those statements turned out to be true. Fortunately, it's the most important one. I wouldn't make too much of the NAEP trends from a single cycle, nor of the apparent resurgence of the image of Michelle Rhee the Warrior/Tyrant (depending on your POV).

But I've got to say I'm a little worried here. I partially lose consciousness, and a little bit of the universe's fabric frays. I've learned my lesson: I'll never exercise again, to keep the world and reality safe.

For those who are curious: probably a combination of too-little a/c in the gym and my body trying to fight off a virus. My daughter had a fever last night, and while I don't have a fever, I've been exhausted for the last 3-4 evenings. And the most embarrassing detail? It all happened at the leg-press machine. I mean, if you've ever looked at me, you'd say, "If that guy ever faints while working out, it'll be on upper-body work. No real biceps, and don't even try to identify triceps on the man. But the thighs and below? Not a problem." Apparently the large muscles in my body had a larger appetite for blood and oxygen than was healthy.

September 18, 2009

Galileoscope constructed

It's been a frustrating week in some ways, so I took an hour off to look at the Galileoscope package that arrived a few days ago. Could a non-science person who is only moderately handy put a $20 telescope with supposedly great optical features together?

I guess he could. And then he pointed it at a neighbor's tree 150m away, held a point-and-shoot digital camera up to the eyepiece, and pressed on the shutter as gently as he could:

Squirrel privacy be gone! Now let's see if I can persuade either of my children to look at the stars through this tonight... if we don't have thunderstorms.

September 17, 2009

Serious science toy for the International Year of Astronomy: the Galileoscope

Galileoscope (not the ones in my house)

I wasn't going to mention it here until I got my hands on it, but the two Galileoscopes I ordered in the summer finally made their way to my house yesterday, so I can now tell you all: they're shipping! They're real! One is for us and the other is for a young man we hope to surprise with it (and not upset his parents by giving him an excuse to stay up far, far too late, as well as insisting that they drive him somewhere without light pollution).

These 25x telescopes were designed for the International Year of Astronomy (2009) to have much better optics than telescopes of similar cost ($20 per for small orders), and while I cannot vouch for their qualities (yet!), I am definitely looking forward to putting this together, putting it on a tripod, and looking up at the sky this winter (when Floridians can stargaze with some reliability). The people who are behind this project are dearly hoping that this will give kids all over the world an experience that helps teach them science and inspires some to go into science. I hope they're right!

The following is an image of the moon through a prototype of the Galileoscope:

A great site for astronomy photos if you can't stargaze today: APOD, or the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Today's is absolutely amazing (and that's going to be true no matter when you read this entry).

June 29, 2009

Prevent backtalk: turn on the television!

I knew it years ago, and in two studies released earlier this month and this week, I think both in peer reviewed journals, we have it confirmed: the best way to prevent teenagers from talking back to you is to turn on the television years earlier so that they don't develop the ability to talk back. So that spring day in 1996 when my wife and I decided to sell our television before moving to Tampa? A big mistake.

And there we were, deciding that we were advancing our children's interests. No, that wasn't it at all: they were 4 and 1 at the time, and we decided that since we didn't like their arguments over the television, we'd see how long we could go without one in the house.Answer: 13 years and counting. And no matter what arguments we have in our household, it's not about the channel the television's tuned to. Instead, it's about who gets the computer...

Serious side: The article released this week is more about the relationship between adult caregiver and child than about television, and it highlights the importance of one-to-one interactions at early ages. I suspect this will be followed by other analyses from the same data set.

June 4, 2009

My brother, the health-care policy wonk

Time to kvell: my brother Stan Dorn is currently a staff member at the Urban Institute, the latest step in a long career in health policy. Yesterday, he went toe-to-toe with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Congressional Budget Office director, and Dennis Kneale, apparently one of the designated Yelling Heads at CNBC who asserted that 20,000 dead each year from lack of health insurance is a "rounding error." Right. 

February 20, 2009

One-Blog Schoolhouse, the Musical collection of ... edited blog entries

In the last few months, in odd moments, I've edited about three-dozen entries I've written in the past few years so you could hold the new One-Blog Schoolhouse in your hands after buying it at your local internet book dealer.

Why should you buy a book composed of blog entries that you could probably find somewhere online (i.e., here) and read for free?

  • The title is great. Admit it: you need to buy the book just because of the title.
  • There are only two ways you can read my letter to the president on education policy: work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or buy the book. The letter is in the prefatory materials, right after the acknowledgments.
  • I've taken care to edit the entries so you don't have to remember what was going on in the blogosphere in September 2007 or any other month.
  • I have secretly conspired to upgrade my blog platform a few months ago in such a way that the search-box no longer works. Bwahahaha!  Uh, no; that lack of functionality is not my fault, and you could use Google to find any blog entry here. But the book has a friendly table of contents and an index that will smile if you give it dark chocolate. (I need to get a PDF of the contents and index online, and when I do, I'll write another entry to point to it.)
  • While I have some selected reading suggestions in the text, there is a more complete list of references available for downloading right now.
  • When you are on a plane or otherwise disengaged from the internet, you can get the exact same experience that you would by reading my blog, except that you don't have backlighting, and the book itself is much lighter than whatever you're using to read this entry.
  • When you have a friend or colleague who just refuses to read blogs, you can put the book under her or his nose and say, "This is what you've been missing!"
  • You will find the book priced for an economic downturn, less expensive than anything else in print with my name as author or editor.
  • The cover has the friendly slogan in big red letters, "Don't Panic." Since the book cover is also red, you may find the slogan a little tough to find. But it's there!

So buy One-Blog Schoolhouse today.

December 3, 2008

Cognition isn't all that it's cracked up to be

If I had my usual set of facilities about me, I would defer grumbling about Kevin Carey's article in the Washington Monthly because I had work to do. But though Carey elides fairly important topics such as real trends in faculty pay, adjunctification, and trends in state support for public higher education, the real reason tonight (or probably early this morning by the time this is done) that I'm deferring grumbling about it is because I don't have my usual set of facilities about me, in either the archaic sense of cognitive apparatus or equipment (in this case, access to a website I need to get several tasks done). Because Michael Bérubé's entry today shows that he has more patience with Peter Singer than I do, I can't even explain what irks me about Singer's position vis-a-vis cognitive capacity of people with Down syndrome. I can assure you that I know several adults with Down syndrome who would be more trusted at this moment to make sound judgments about important matters than I would be.

Part of this well-grounded feeling of inferiority comes from a specific medical condition that were I to have any authority at all in the area would probably be attributed to a rhinovirus or retrovirus. At this point in a head cold, I'm usually less miserable than seriously underslept and overstimulated, and after about 43.5 years on this earth, I know that unless I'm mistaken, this is a temporary set of circumstances. Well, not the underslept or overstimulated part, but the unusual combinations of ideas that appear in my head. Yeah, yeah, I know some of you believers in "brain-based learning" would point to V.S. Ramachandran's work on synaesthesia to argue that my brain probably just has interesting connections building up. Me, I think it's the result of congestion and a lack of willpower in commanding my brain to make sense. But what do I know? If I'm right that I am not making sense, then the last sentence is ... oh, shoot. I'm sure Bertrand Russell would find a way to delegitimize that last passage.

I consider myself lucky to be past the point in this illness where I am physically miserable and have to force myself by sheer dint of moral rectitude to stop feeling sorry for myself, damnagit, I have friends who are chronically in pain or are in life-threatening conditions. No, instead I am in the mildly entertaining or at least distracting condition of having the delusion that if I am seriously lucky I could put together a set of words or at least word-like things that might be in the stream-of consciousness style that is almost but not quite entirely unlike what James Joyce might have written on a bad day when he had felt like the entire Everglades had invaded his left sinuses.

(Kids, don't try this destruction of a good Douglas Adams construction at home: your friends will run screaming from the room, never to speak with you again. I should note that I am alone in this room.)

Nonetheless, I suspect that despite this short lapse in my usual blogging style and restraint, I might still be considered human enough to have rights in Peter Singer's firmament. So that's one flaw in his argument, the essentializing of human capacity. If I have rights when I have my full faculties, but for ten days out of a year, I'm making about as much sense as an iguana with a bad temper, the contingency of rights on cognition is something that is hard to see as consistent or useful. I could have been euthanized four days ago when I was a fairly useless lump on a bed, but tomorrow and definitely by Thursday I'm one of the protected cognitive classes? Even in my current condition, that makes about as much sense as a cabbage being elected president. (Then again, that could explain our 13th president, a Mr. James Buchanan.)

In addition to essentializing human capacity, it has a remarkably crude view of cognition and human understanding. While I may be attracted to the work of Dr. Ramachandran because it fits my own experiences, most cognitive psychologists I know think that our mind is much more complicated and subtle than even the most sophisticated models today. That's okay: a model is not supposed to be as complex as reality, and the work I'm aware of (I'm not a psychologist!) gives tentalizing clues about a modular mind rather than a detailed framework. But those clues are enough to cast doubt on cognition as a unidimensional construct. If it is so, it is plausibly unidimensional only under fairly strong assumptions without convincing evidence.

November 18, 2008

Brief notes on a college visit

My daughter and I took advantage of Veterans Day this year to make another college-visit trip, to a different region of the country from February's trip, this time to two Colleges of Potential Choice. I was wrong last time when I said I kept having facultyish thoughts in February as well as parent thoughts. I have at least three lenses through which I'm seeing colleges we visit: parent, faculty member, and person who studies education. Thoughts during the visits Monday and Tuesday:

  • The campus tour is a genre of performance art with its own conventions and rituals (including the tourguide's walking-backwards-and-tripping bit). 
  • All of the institutions we've visited together try to make students feel special/entitled, and their values are embodied in how they do so.
  • She's enjoying cooler weather (again). We've definitely lost her as far as staying close to home is concerned.
  • As a parent, I waver between wanting a tourguide to pour forth the information and hoping that the tourguide is just a little rough around the edges so we get a better sense of the institution. Same with the admissions officer who conducts the information session.
  • Oh, dear. I spaced out precisely at the time when the tourguide said something surprising (and alarming) to my daughter. Time to conduct some quick research online while she's in class!
  • That is both an odd and perfect place for the science fiction collection.
  • It is a surprising phenomenon that slight changes in the architecture can make a difference between a campus that feels intimate and a campus that feels monumental. 
  • Stone, wood, plaster, brick, concrete. Someone's got to write a song about campus building materials.
  • That must be awfully slippery in the rain. The other flooring isn't, but it's awfully ugly. Isn't there any flooring that is both safe and pleasing?
  • I think the charm of both places is almost guaranteed in contrast to my daughter's bureaucratic high school.
  • Oh, they don't have that here? I made an assumption; thank goodness I didn't voice it with my daughter.
  • Oh, my, that's an amazing... indulgence is not quite the word. Neither is entitlement, since it's valuable for its educational purpose. Serious flabbergastery, and I'm someone who's been around for a good while. 
These random notes are brought to you by a day that started at 5:15 and is going past 11 pm, with a few breaks for chauffeuring, music, and light napping. I am still far behind on stuff I need to do in almost any realm of life. It's everything I've taken on, plus the time of the semester, but I think I'm going to declare temporal bankruptcy. Warning: if you're not a family member, I'm afraid you're not a secured creditor on my time. Maybe my problem is prioritization and sequencing. I was trying to finish up a project today with an acquaintance, when she snapped back, "Sherman, you are just too little, too late. I already voted!"

I think I will stop now before I commit worse jokes.

October 20, 2008

Oh good grief (the personal version)

Stay up late listening to the seventh game of the ALCS. Go to sleep, but not for long enough. Wake up. Shower. Dress. Drive son to school. Arrive on campus. Turn on computer. Realize you left your reading glasses at home. Drive home. Talk with spouse for a few minutes. Drive to campus. Realize you left your reading glasses at home again.

Without glasses, I can read for about 25-30 minutes at a time before I get slightly dizzy and a bit headachy. So I'll be pretty inefficient today, except maybe I'll clean out my office as a result. But having stuff to do without being able to makes me feel like Oliver Hardy in the famous movie The Sierpinski Caper, after he was dragged by Stan Laurel into a class on fractal geometry: "Well, here's another nice math you've gotten me into."

August 31, 2008

Maybe Nagin's "900-mile-wide storm" wasn't that much of an exaggeration

I started the day with some menial tasks and will continue that for a little while more before donating blood. We'll see if I'm good for anything tomorrow (often, I'm completely wiped out the day after donating).

In the obvious news, there's nothing like a tropical-storm windfield as large as Louisiana to get your attention on a lazy Sunday. In Tampa, we've had cloud cover for almost a day from the upper-atmosphere outflow cirrus clouds of Gustav (the very northern and northeastern fringes, but still). This is not as large a storm as Katrina was at its most powerful (category 5, sucking up the heat and water in the central Gulf), but good grief. We don't really need another monster to help physics and environmental-science teachers explain how hurricanes redistribute heat around the globe. I just hope everyone in New Orleans started packing and moving before Mayor Nagin's evacuation declarations.

If this storm batters the Big Easy, I suspect we may see the population drop another 30-40%, leaving almost nothing but the French Quarter and the suburbs. Institutions like schools could see another catastrophic loss of built capital if the levees are breached, and I have no idea what's going to happen to the colleges and universities, especially Xavier and Dillard. I hope this is all needless fretting. But if you're in the path of Gustav, get out and stay safe.

July 2, 2008

Summer colds

Sign of a head cold: when you get about 20% of what you expected done in the morning. So I took the afternoon off and for the first time in more than a year, took sick leave. That's rare for faculty, since we have flexible schedules. But I figured that if I was going to be useless for work, and given the holiday on Friday, I should legitimately eat the hours. (I'm on 75% FTE this summer, for coursework and union release.)

It was the right decision. I had to miss a teleconference and slept for a good part of the afternoon and early evening. Since I had a dissertation defense the next day (later this morning, technically), I knew which day was more important for me to be conscious and alert.

So for those who are waiting for things from me, please accept my apologies: you didn't want me to work on your stuff this afternoon.

June 18, 2008

Mental drops in a scattered morning

Some odd thoughts this morning as I catch up on a bunch of things (but probably not enough):

  • The key difference between great colloquial writing and great formal writing is how efficient the formal writing is. There are some vocabulary differences (colloquial writing uses slang, while formal writing generally avoids it), but too many undergraduate and graduate students misunderstand formality as syllable-counting. There is some difference in the complexity of sentences, but too many students misunderstand formality as a greater density of adverbs, commas, and semicolons. Great colloquial writing uses stories and extended metaphors and welcomes tangents. Great formal writing illustrates and uses metaphors to teach, not to distract. Great colloquial writing invites the reader into a conversation. Great formal writing leads the reader by the eyeballs. The greatest writers can shift between colloquial and formal without readers' noticing. The rest of us mortals must be more careful.
  • Reporting on education research is too close to tourism and too far away from analysis. I see too many articles that describe a single study, report, or brief without any context. I wish I had an easy solution to this. Newspapers could refuse to print anything on research unless there is a "here's the context" piece that passes a good reporter's sniff test on reasonableness. The fifteen-minute sniff test that a reporter can try with any press release that claims the research is the "first" or "only" anything: go to Google Scholar. Use a half-dozen search terms. See if that research really is the first of its kind.
  • Birthdays close to Father's Day are good for my sanity, but not great for completing work-related tasks. The world gave me a pretty good birthday this year, ending with an exciting finish to the Cubs-Rays game I took my son to. (Is it just Tropicana Stadium, or are fans in baseball stadiums far more racially homogeneous than when I was a child?) It wasn't as good a day for the world as in 1991, when South Africa repealed its Population Registration Act, but it certainly beat an attack on democracy in 1972 (Watergate break-in) and sheer weirdness in 1994 (the interminable car "chase" of O.J. Simpson leading to his arrest).
  • I need a working time machine to help me with my workload. Unfortunately, my search on eBay didn't turn up much of practical value.
  • The last two paragraphs were examples of (not-great) colloquial writing. So is this.

June 17, 2008

My (undelivered) (okay, unwritten) graduation speech

Twenty-five years ago today (it's still on the 25th anniversary in California, though it is past midnight in Florida), I graduated from Corona del Mar High School, in Orange County, California. I wasn't at my high school graduation, because I was at the national speech tournament that year, I think in Salt Lake City. (My friend and debate partner Jeff Sklansky carried us through the district tournament, and we went to nationals three years in a row.) It tells you something about my parents that while I wasn't at my own graduation, they were. If I had attended, I probably would have been able to give a forgettable speech. But I didn't get a chance to, so I never thought seriously about what I would have said.

A quarter century later, I wonder what I would have said. And given my research interests in graduation, I've been giving some thought to what I could and should have said to an audience that included some very wealthy parents and some poor parents in a fairly schizophrenic community, and the younger siblings of my classmates. I graduated just a few months after the release of A Nation at Risk, and no high school senior would then have guessed what would happen to schools and education politics over the next few decades.

Since it's an anniversary of sorts, I'll take my best shot at it now: the graduation speech I never gave but wish I had.

Dear parents, siblings, teachers, Mr. Evans, and everyone else - on behalf of my classmates, thank you. Thank you for coming today. Thank you for being there for us so we could be here in front of you. Thank you for pushing us in the last few years when we needed pushing and backing off when it was better for us to feel and think about the pain of our mistakes. Thank you for asking the right questions, so we have your voices in our head over the next few years. We may not thank you next year, but we'll do it again in about twenty. Thank you for giving us responsibilities, so I suppose I should thank you for making us take out the garbage, both ours and the rest of the household's. It's a life lesson in shared responsibility, though I think next time I'll ask to pick the trash liner. And Mrs. Thompson, we know most of that's a metaphor, but probably not the trash liner bit.

I can tell you about the teachers I've learned from in this school, from Mr. Harvey in English to Mr. Knowlton and Ms. Painter in history, from Ms. Mook's newspaper class and Mr. Fish's Spanish classes to Mr. Vassos in physics. If there is any grace in how we write, a teacher in this school deserves credit. If we know osmosis from mitosis, either Mr. Ghere or Mr. Schnicter is the reason why. If they've made mistakes, I won't mention them today, because our teachers have shown us what to do with our mistakes, how to revise and rework and get up and dust yourself off. There is no class called persistence, but it's what they teach in high school.

But that's not just taught in school. I want to tell you about the most persistent people in my life. I am the youngest of five children, and my parents have now sat in this quad at five graduations. They have been to dozens of concerts and speech tournaments and hundreds of sports games and parent-teacher conferences. They have driven five children to all corners of this county, taken five of us to emergency rooms (though not all at the same time), comforted five children on the loss of pets and grandparents, listened to the rants and dreams of five teenagers, and raised five of us to adulthood. My father has driven to dozens of C-sections in the middle of the night and picked up the phone at all hours to give advice to parents worried because their young children are sick. If there's one thing I know from my father's job, it's that you should wait a few hours until your stomach calms down, then try Pedialite, or maybe ice chips or weak tea.

My parents have told us that our job is going to school, that knowledge is joyous, and that we were responsible for our own work. But what they said is the least part of it. They have not told us about persistence. They have lived it. And now, at least one phase of your life as parents is over. Mom, you don't have to buy any more college-ruled paper.

My parents taught us about more than persistence. My parents have shown me how to help friends and how to make them. We live in one of the most fortunate communities in the most fortunate country in the world. My parents have never forgotten that. When I was young, they took in exchange students visiting the U.S. In the last few years, they've shown me how to welcome new Americans to California. They have shown us how to look at what's not in the headlines, how to ask the uncomfortable questions. Every time that my teachers have asked me to look at things in a different way, they have reinforced my parents' lessons.

So I look at my classmates and our teachers and all of our families -- all of you -- and I think this is wonderful. And it is. You are a class with wonderful possibilities, who can do amazing things in the next few years. You are friends I have learned from and admire and always will.

But my parents and other teachers have taught me well, perhaps too well. Some of us have had a much easier path to this point than others. Remember that my parents told my brothers, sisters, and me that our job was going to school? They didn't allow us to take jobs for pay in the school year. They wanted to turn their good fortune into their children's advantage, into my advantage. That hasn't been true for everyone. This wealthy community has plenty of families who are not as fortunate. Some of us have taken jobs and worked through high school because our families had no choice. These are the classmates I admire the most, the ones who worked and then came home and finished homework late at night, or took a few minutes on their jobs to scribble in the margins of James Joyce in the break room in the back.

And there are my classmates who worked during the school year, but who didn't have to, who did so for gas money or insurance, not because parents couldn't afford the expense of a car but because that was the agreement at home. I've never argued my parents' values with my friends, because it wasn't our choice who our parents were. And high school is not so hard that a few hours of work in the week will kill your grades. But while I am the youngest in my family, there are plenty of younger siblings here, watching their brothers or sisters graduate. Let me challenge the parents here with the question my parents would ask: if your child does not have to work at a job, what do you want his or her job to be during the school year: doing homework and reading, or working as an office secretary or at a fast-food restaurant? I don't think it's the challenge just of my parents. It's the challenge that many of our teachers would raise. And it's also the challenge that college teachers will raise.

Finally, I am thinking of who is not here. Even in this fortunate community, not everyone graduates. If I close my eyes, I can see their faces. So can all of us: the students in Spanish or French classes who didn't come back after one of the summers. There is something wrong in their not being here, in our not acknowledging that this is a smaller group than we should have here today.

That may seem a somber note on which to end a graduation speech, but I think a graduation is a bit like a funeral or a bar mitzvah. There is somebody or some people whose lives you are celebrating, but it is as important for the community as for the people at the focus of the event. Taxpayers do not fund public education just for the private benefits of graduates and their families. There is a broader purpose to high school if there is any merit in public schooling, and there is something amiss when we don't acknowledge that we are not yet where we want to be.

That's true of our society, and it's also true of us as graduates. This day is a celebration of promise, but we have to work to fulfill that promise. If high school graduation is the best point of our lives, we don't have much to look forward to. But I know that Caroline and Colleen and Jeff and so many others here have a great deal to look forward to. The same must be true of public schooling. If we stop where we are here, with these graduates and no more, we have very little to look forward to from the class of 1984, or the class of 1985, or the class of 1995.

My parents told me some years ago what their parents must have told them: We wish that you grow up to know more and to do the world more good than we know or do now. That's an ambitious dream of parents, it's either a promise to me or a curse, and someday I will get my revenge on my own children. Or maybe now on everyone else here. My friends and classmates, I wish that when we see each other at reunion years in the future, you are far smarter and wiser than any of us are now. Ms. Mook, Mr. Ghere, and all the other teachers: I wish that you teach even better next year. And I wish that the graduating class next year is larger, smarter, wiser, and more accomplished than the class of 1983. I think we're pretty good now. But for both us and for our younger friends and siblings, I'd like to be able to say (with the permission of Mrs. Thompson for what's ungrammatical), "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

I'll explain more about Miriam Thompson tomorrow (or later today).

June 15, 2008

Families and schools (Father's Day edition)

I'm recovering from the ritual that millions of parents have been through before me: taking a teenager out for the lane-changing experiment. My daughter earned her Florida learner's permit 9 days ago, started driving classes at a local high school last week, and has been driving short jaunts with her mother or me every day since. She handles our cars well, and she tells us that we've been far less nervous than she expected. (I'm not sure whether to count this comment as a compliment.)

We live in a subdivision with a few quiet roads around us but hemmed in on three sides with major streets. My daughter has been expanding her local range cautiously, but she needed a chance to try changing lanes when the traffic was light. This morning, we headed north on one of the major roads (7 lanes near our house). We had a small detour when she spotted a tortoise on the road, found a place to park to check on the turtle, and discovered it had already been killed by other motorists. Then we headed back to the highway where she changed lanes several times, generally kept up highway speed, grumbled her irritation at fellow drivers who rushed to turn close in front of her, and returned home. And only then did she remember it was Father's Day.

Driving classes are the classic example of an "add-on" function of schooling that irritated the authors of The Shopping Mall High School. Driving classes exist in public schooling because teenagers are relatively risky drivers, most teenagers attend school, and someone decades ago figured high schools were the logical place to offer driving classes. "They will come, so build it." Insurance companies in Florida give small discounts after the completion of a certified driving course, so there is an incentive for parents and young drivers to seek out the classes. (My daughter reports that several classmates in the course after driving for months, just to get the discount.)

What surprises me a little (but not much) is that with few exceptions, I don't hear anyone publicly questioning the role of driving classes in high school. They're available, so I'm happy to use them for my own children, but I don't think they deserve the same level of support as other areas of the curriculum. Learning how to drive before you graduate is less important than all sorts of other things. Why driving became the responsibility of schools makes sense if you know about the history of secondary education but it makes little sense if you think about the possible ways in which families and schools could share responsibility for children.

May 25, 2008

NPR's coverage of the Sichuan earthquake

Is there anyone else who wishes that the general public could nominate entries for the Peabody Awards for electronic media? National Public Radio's coverage of the Sichuan earthquake has demonstrated what a treasure the organization is. All Things Considered hosts Robert Siegel and Melissa Block were in Sichuan province so NPR could air features on Chinese society well before the Olympics, with a blog centered on Andrea Hsu's coverage of life in Chengdu. Block and Hsu were interviewing a Christian priest when the earthquake interrupted them, and the NPR staff spent the next 10 days covering the aftermath of the disaster in a way that is unmatched by any other North American news outlet.

I've listened to NPR since I was a child, and my 13-year-old son is now a news junkie, insisting that we turn on All Things Considered when I pick him up at school. Occasionally, I get irritated by this, since I have a parents' desire to talk with my children about what happens in school. But if it weren't for my son's insistence that we turn on NPR the day of the earthquake, I would not have heard Block's report May 12 from one of the many schools that simply collapsed, crushing hundreds of students my son's age. We listened in silence on the way home, horrified at the destruction and yet still glad that we were hearing about it from someone as professional as Block. Apparently NPR heard from hundreds of listeners praising the coverage, and I think what made NPR's coverage unique is that it personalized the quake's effects without sensationalizing them. In doing so, Block, Siegel, and the rest of the NPR team turned the audience from voyeurs into neighbors.

May 24, 2008

May progress notes

All May birthdays and the anniversary are now done, all but two of the musical events are done, and one of the two belt tests are done. We know roughly how many faculty are being laid off at my university (very few, which is good, but many staff, which is bad). I'm far behind on many things, but given that it's May and a May with budget cut plans, it could have been much worse on many fronts.

Thus far, plans for the June-July course are apace, and I'll soon have a sense of whether the logistical innovation I'm trying will change the dynamics of a graduate class with working professionals. I'm giving students a limited amount of "leave time" they need to accrue before they can use it to skip class time (roughly up to 8-9% of the total semester time). This switches attendance from an orientation I fear will remind them of undergraduate classes (lose too much, and you drop grades) to something they know in a professional context: you get leave time you can use any time you want, but you have to accrue it before you can use it. (I'm using things like taking quizzes early, spotting omissions or errors in the syllabus, and answering classmates' questions as ways to reward students for helping the class run smoothly.) Students still cannot pass the class if they miss half of the time, but they can take time off after earning the leave. There are other things I have planned that I'm excited about, but that's all speculative. From watching things thus far, it looks like accruing leave time is motivating a core group of students already, even though we haven't met.

Note: My thanks to CCPhysicist, whose comment on my last entry about policy (and specifically an interesting extension of Bayesian probability to matching personal judgments to predictions about a population's judgment) gives me some ideas on my own classes. There are apparently a range of techniques that try to match personal judgments to predictions of a population (e.g., the information pump technique) and now a paper called A Truth-Serum for Non-Bayesians. I love discovering and learning about this, but I have things I need to do... ah, intellectual distractions.

May 22, 2008


My spouse and I will have been married 20 years, as of this afternoon around 2:30. My gift to her this morning: the complete Far Side collection. We couldn't fit it on the shelves upright. Ah, well.

May 11, 2008

On call for Mother's Day

Material gifts: a magazine and Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (hat tip). Non-material gift: we do all the chores today. I didn't quite catch my spouse before she did a few minor things, but we've gotten to six tasks before she got there.

We don't do the breakfast-in-bed routine for Mother's Day, especially not with adolescent children who sleep in and my spouse who wakes up before dawn regardless of the rest of the schedule. But she was able to get a few hours of writing time in before the offspring woke up, so maybe that's another gift. ;)

We also have opened up the house, and I think I can go without asking that we close it up again and turn on the a/c until this evening. As long as it's 80 F. or lower when I go to sleep, I'm happy.

March 23, 2007

The yoke's on me

My fellow faculty union members elected me chapter president for the next year. So why do the by-laws stipulate that I take office on April Fool's Day? 

I've already received congratulations and condolences from several colleagues, and I hope my judgment over the next year justifies the selection.

February 12, 2007

Speaking of college presidents...

It looks as though my alma mater, Haverford College, is about to pick its next leader.  One brother-in-law teased me years ago that "Haverford" is what comes out of a drunken Harvard student's mouth when asked where she or he attends, but there really isn't a link between the announcement from Harvard yesterday and an event this evening in suburban Philadelphia that may or may not be an announcement.

February 11, 2007

Delighted at Drew's destiny

I'm one of the many people who has crossed paths with Drew Gilpin Faust over the years, and while Harvard is only one university, I'm very happy that Faust got picked as president. I never had a class with her when I was in grad school at Penn, but she was well-known for being serious and supportive, I found her the same, and there is nothing in the last 15 years to contradict the reputation she had among grad students.

She will do just fine as Harvard's president.

There is one apocryphal story I have of her role in saving House of Our Own, an independent bookstore on the 3900 block of Spruce Street in Philadelphia. For many years, it's operated out of the same brownstone building owned by Penn.  While I was a grad student (and several times since), Penn threatened to end its lease for various alleged purposes, including supposed redevelopment or repurposing of the building, though grad students generally supposed that the university thought that House of Our Own competed with the campus bookstore (which it did, or would have if the campus bookstore ever had a significant intellectual focus).

In any case, during one of those occasional crises, Faust and her husband Charles Rosenberg were offered jobs at Harvard. They either asked to talk to or were invited to talk to Penn's then-president, Sheldon Hackney (a Southern historian, like Faust). Hackney asked why they would ever consider Harvard.

"Harvard wouldn't shut down a small bookstore operating in Harvard Square!" is the comment I've heard attributed to Drew Faust. She and Rosenberg stayed at Penn a few more years, and the bookstore stayed open, though I don't know if there's a connection.

April 28, 2005

On privacy when traveling

One last entry tonight, and on a personal note (though not about the sad and mysterious disappearance of Lucius, my daughter's fire-bellied toad): I recently purchased an electric viola from the Electric Violin Shop and am currently waiting for a case for it and a bow. I played viola for 12 years as a child and picked it up again 20 years later when my daughter started with violin. It's been one of my sanity savers since the fall of 2003 and through a very hard 2004. (As I've told colleagues, If you misbehave, I'm going to open the case and use what's inside. I know—is my choice of instrument consistent with my self-image as someone who contributes to the greater harmony but is not really destined to be a star of anything? Sure, he says with a twisted grin.) But as I was traveling last month, I realized that I didn't feel very comfortable bringing my viola on trips where it might get banged up, and I didn't want to disturb other guests in a hotel. So this is a solution that lets me practice. It's very well made, almost as light as a real viola, and cool in many ways. I'll be bringing it on my next meeting at the end of next week. And to my guilty personal pleasures, the occasional SF convention. So I suppose I did engage in some retail therapy at the end of this semester.

Only there's very little sensual pleasure from playing this. Or at least not the same pleasure from having a vibrating wooden box under your chin. Oh, well. The compromises we make in work, travel, and pleasure ...

February 20, 2002

To go in or not to go in

Wednesday, when I need to pick my children up and drop them off with my spouse before I head to the faculty senate meeting. Do I head to the office or work at home? Unfortunately, I needed to commute, because I needed to print out quizzes for my Wednesday night class, drop off copies of some documents for a colleague, check in with a staff member on a project, and pick up a packet of materials to be copied for a faculty senate committee, if I'm guessing something correctly. And I was hoping to get some other work done! Alas, poor Yorick.

The virtual chat last night worked well for some of the students who came (five or six), who asked questions, and I wore my fingers out typing back my responses. I was disappointed by the turnout, but we'll see if "attendance" picks up in the next few weeks.

May 28, 2001

Not working

Well, not exactly not working—I watered plants this morning, hope to play basketball with my son in a short time, and will fly up to Ohio for a work trip tonight and come back tomorrow night. I'm headed out for a memorial service in New Mexico on Thursday, so the "workweek" will be short but hectic. I'll probably have to bring the laptop on the trip with me this weekend.

March 27, 2001

Juggling obligations

Thirty minutes before my 10 a.m. class, I need to write down the scores of the class's students on last week's quiz, and I'm also working on two papers, one the chapter I worked on over the weekend and one fun, very short article manuscript I'm hoping to send off this week. I suppose it would be a sort of April Fool's Day joke in my field. We'll see. (No, I'm not going to provide any hints about what it is. That would spoil the surprise!)

Last night I stayed up until approximately midnight grading my backlog of quizzes for the 2 p.m. section, and I'll be able to hand them back this afternoon. Tomorrow I work on the backlog for 10 a.m.