Is “celebrity” synonymous with “hemorrhoid”?

I’m beginning to think so. The latest asshat to have used his influence to engage in sexual harassment is “celebrity” chef* Mario Batali, who then issued an apology for his behavior as his business and reputation flamed out with spectacular rapidity. He’s resigned from his multiple restaurants, he’s lost his TV appearances, and Walmart and Target aren’t selling his line of crap anymore. I’m a little exasperated with the big rich guys who suddenly decide an apology after the fact will rescue their crumbling empires, but Batali took it to the next level. His apology starts out well, but then…

How can you possibly hold groping unconscious women against me? I give you pizza dough cinnamon roles! Delicious!

Do the substitution. Hemorrhoid Chef Mario Batali. You’ll never want to eat there again.


The star war was…OK

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was one of the better ones, actually, which isn’t saying a heck of a lot, but it does mean you won’t be embarrassed by it, as you were by the horrible prequels or the patent marketing ploy of the Ewoks. It also survived the most unpleasant test of a movie ever.

About halfway through the showing here in Morris, someone in the theater crapped their pants. It wasn’t too near me, so all I suffered through was the occasional eddy of air passing through bearing the odor of hot buttered popcorn and poop, and fortunately I hadn’t bought any popcorn or snack food, so it was only sporadically unpleasant — but no one left the theater. Not the poopy pants person or anyone seated near them. So I think we can say the movie was at least that engaging.

Just a hint of etiquette, though: you may think it’s a good idea to test the dedication of an audience, but still, when you’ve shat your drawers please excuse yourself and clean up.

The burning question, though, is about the plot. No spoilers here, but remember how the last one was practically a remake of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, and you could slot all the characters into analogs of the first movie’s cast, with some of that cast also making significant appearances, and the plot was just “blow up the Death Star”, only with an even bigger Death Star? Yeah, this one shows it’s bones are the same as the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Those bones have been creatively jiggered around, so you’ll still get some surprises. The ice planet battle with rebels in trenches fighting the oncoming, ponderous army of massive imperial battle machines is still there, it’s just been put near the end instead of the beginning, for instance.

It’s such a clone that there’s even a scene where the whiny Darth Vader copy, Kylo Ren, breaks the heart of the Luke version, Rey, by informing them of their parentage during a climactic battle. Don’t worry, though, it’s not something like, “I, Kylo Ren, am your third cousin twice removed” and Rey goes, like, “NOOOOOO. It can’t be!” It’s a little more realistic than that.

Also, the movie is overstuffed with irrelevant side-conflicts and tangents and sudden swordfights which turn the whole story into a sloppy turducken of confusion, but it’s OK, they’re entertaining, just go with it.

The porgs were clearly tossed in as comic relief. They weren’t very amusing. That’s the level of humor we’re working at here, so don’t expect much to laugh at. Do not buy the inevitable porg toys, or I will have to unfriend you.

The primary plot devices are all about Force magic. The hokey religion angle is wearing thin, but OK, it’s a fantasy story, I guess we need to allow it.

By the way, is it now a requirement that every sf/fantasy movie include one character rendered so badly that it breaks all suspension of disbelief? In this one it’s Yoda. He still looks like a cheesy foam puppet made in the 1970s, and his scene just goes on and on. He’s dead. He’s a Force ghost. Let him rest in peace, ‘k?

Bottom line: if I were twelve years old again, I’d probably be saying “This is the greatest movie ever!!!” I’m not, unfortunately, so I’m just going to say it’s fine, light, forgettable entertainment. It would be improved by having an audience that could control their bowels, but otherwise it’s exactly what it says on the label and as long as you don’t expect depth or greatness, and it truly is a nice representative of the Star Wars genre.


How to purge yourself of The Gay

I was darned close to a perfect 0 on the Kinsey scale, exclusively heterosexual. But let’s face it, we’re all able to experience some degree of same-sex attraction — even I could feel a little internal tremor when I saw Jason Mamoa. But no more. I have achieved a perfect 0. You might ask how, how can you too drive yourself to Absolute Heterosexual Manliness? And I will tell you.

I started reading this interview with Matt Damon, who I might once have said was reasonably attractive in the right light. But as I read deeper, I first felt that there was something mildly disturbing here, like, how can he be so self-centered about accusations of harassment? Then when he starts rationalizing about how we ought to forgive Louis CK because he has been punished enough, the self-loathing started to well up. And then by the time he says his response to a hypothetical accusation against himself would be to lawyer up and buy her off, my journey was complete: I now hate all men. Jason, I’m sorry. I couldn’t bear to spend any time with you now.

I thought that was enough. I was now pure. But I didn’t know that Tom Hanks — sweet, avuncular, gentle Tom Hanks — was going to speak up.

He he told the New York Post newspaper’s Page Six column: If you threw out every film or TV show that was made by an a**hole, Netflix would go out of business. I think you do just have … to wait because this is a long game.

Fuck damn. I’m thoroughly suffused with the spirit of misandry now. All of my Y chromosomes are cowering in a dark corner of my nuclei. This might be sorta like a massive autoimmune reaction, and I might die.


Friday Cephalopod: So, have you decorated for Christmas?

I haven’t. And today I’ve just been GRADING FINAL EXAMS, because I want to have them mostly done before I go the the local theater for a star war.


I guess there’s a reason FtB lacks a style guide

Oh, no! I just realized that Freethoughtblogs lacks a style book! We have a short guide we send out to all the new bloggers that summarizes the mechanics of writing here, and includes general suggestions, like frequent admonitions to overthrow the patriarchy and return the implements of wealth generation to the hands of the workers, but nothing about style. We just tell ’em to write what they want and how they want, and it’s a free-for-all out there. I think if we said anything about style beyond encouraging godless liberty and a worker’s paradise, we’d have a revolution.

But OK, I know a lot of places enforce a house style and even dictate the kind of content that is acceptable. Let’s see what our competition is up to.

The Daily Stormer has a prime directive.

Oh. Well. I guess I’m not surprised. Nuance and thought get in the way of hatred and violence, so of course oversimplification and reduction to crude caricature is the order of the day there.

What about tone?

This fits. I’m sure you’ve noticed how often the most abominable people use the “I was just joking” defense, or scream “Satire!” at you (the Morris North Star, for instance, publishes prominently a disingenuous disclaimer that they write satire, so that when they accuse an administrator of promoting white genocide, they can quickly disavow it). But we all know they really mean it.

I’m feeling rather nauseated. I don’t think I go on. All the other freethoughtbloggers will be relieved to know that I wouldn’t impose a style guide on them even if that were within my power to do (we have an administration style best characterized as anarchy.)

But please do remember that when an alt-right Nazi or troll from /pol/ smiles and tries to tell you that they’re just having fun, they’re not. They actually are horrible, awful, people who might be dressed up in clownface.

new humanist blog

Book review: The End of Europe by James Kirchick

Are we reaching the end of the post-World War II era in which Europe represented prosperity, peace and consensual problem-solving?
new humanist blog

If women ruled the world

The Mosuo, a culturally isolated community in south-western China, are as close as we can get to a matriarchal society.
new humanist blog

Searching for an English identity

In our uncertain times, there is a new demand for stories of England – but this search is desperate and confused.
bad science

Evidence to House of Commons Sci Tech Select Committee on Research Integrity

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
new humanist blog

Apocalyptic populism

From Donald Trump to Brexit, the establishment is under fierce attack. But political populism is not simply a challenge to the neoliberal order – it is a product of it.

No, The Type of Alcohol You Drink Doesn’t Determine Your Mood

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It’s the holidays and that means one thing: drinking. Drinking in the morning, drinking in the evening, drinking at suppertime.

Okay, that’s not exactly fair. The holidays really mean “family,” and family means drinking. But still, the end result is the same. So it is perfect timing that the Guardian announces “Type of alcohol determines whether you become merry or maudlin – study.”

Since I’m discussing this here and I mention the mainstream media outlet’s reporting on it before I discuss the actual study, you have probably already guessed that that headline is stupid bullshit. No, this study did not in any way suggest that the type of alcohol you consume determines whether you become happy or sad. That might be accomplished by observing people in a controlled environment drinking various types of alcohol and then having them report their feelings before and while they are inebriated. This study, though, was just a survey. The survey asked people to report on what they had to drink in the previous year and how it made them feel. That’s it!

When someone reports that they had red wine and they were relaxed, it could mean that they were anxious and the wine relaxed them, or it could mean that they were in a relaxed mood and chose red wine because of that. Or, they could have been an anxious mess all night and are misremembering feeling relaxed. And if it is the former, in which they were relaxed by the red wine, it could mean that there’s something about red wine that’s more relaxing than, say, tequila, or it could mean that people in certain cultures associate red wine with a cozy night in while associating tequila with a wild night out, so they are influenced by that in what they choose to drink and how they react to that drink.

The survey itself even makes that clear since people reported being more relaxed when drinking at home and more confident and sexy when drinking outside the home.

Different kinds of alcohol aren’t actually all that different from one another. They might be more sugary, or they might have more alcohol by volume, and these things can change how we react to them. If something makes you drunk more quickly you may associate it with bad hangovers or with wild behavior, but at the end of the day you’re just consuming ethanol in various quantities, and you should be aware of how strong your drink is and how much water you’re consuming alongside it if you want to have a less regrettable night and a more pleasant morning.

Other than that, just drink what tastes good and what you’re in the mood for in the moment. Don’t believe any nonsense about which alcohol will make you happy or sad — all of it is, ultimately, a depressant. If you want to get happy, stick with cocaine.

Just kidding! Hugs not drugs, kids.

The post No, The Type of Alcohol You Drink Doesn’t Determine Your Mood appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

A Father’s daughter

In "Priestdaddy", the poet Patricia Lockwood has written a hilarious and revealing account of growing up with a Roman Catholic priest for a dad.

Atheists Sue Over a Priest Visiting an Animal Shelter

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Separation of church and state is vitally important here in America. It protects both religious and nonreligious people from discrimination on the part of the government, ensuring that no one religion is endorsed over another. I believe that we must take absolutely every step available to us to ensure strict adherence to this guiding principle of the United States.

Unless that requires suing someone because you’re angry a priest went to the animal shelter and prayed for the animals there.

That’s what American Atheists are doing, which is funny because I thought they already eradicated religion in 2010 with poorly designed billboards telling people that Jesus is a myth. So I’m not sure why this animal-loving priest even continues to exist, let alone why he is visiting an animal shelter to bless dogs and cats and rabbits in the hopes that they will find homes. But that’s exactly what he did, in an annual display that appears to cost zero tax dollars or even bother the shelter staff, but which does appear to draw attention to the animals in need and remind Catholics that Saint Francis of Assisi would have adopted.

It appears that this event literally has no downsides, but wait until you hear what happened to American Atheists member Candice Yaacobi, who happened to visit the shelter on the same day as the blessing: she was “forced” to see a priest. I mean, she wasn’t forced to sit down and talk with the priest, or interact with him at all. And she knew the event was happening since she saw it on the shelter’s Facebook page and informed American Atheists about it, so she wasn’t actually even surprised to see the priest. But I’m sure that was literally the only day, and in fact the only 90-minute stretch, during which she could have gone to the shelter to adopt the dog that I’m sure she really, truly wanted to adopt. Literally the only day she could go was on a Wednesday between 1:30pm and 3pm. According to the complaint, seeing the priest at the shelter “sent Candice the message that the BCAS and Bergen County regarded her as inferior to those citizens who happened to adhere to the favored religious view.”

I’m no lawyer, so hey, maybe the American Atheists have a good case, here. Or maybe, this would only actually be a serious violation of church and state if the shelter hosted the priest but refused to allow an atheist to swing by for 90 minutes on a Wednesday to talk to the animals about, I don’t know, evolution? Maybe point out to the pugs that their respiratory problems are the tragic result of humanity’s “intelligent design”? I don’t know, just a thought. Because for a government to not elevate one religion over another, they can either not allow any mention of any religion ever, or they can allow all religions to have equal representation.

And having volunteered for shelters, and having adopted many pets from shelters, I can say with near 100% certainty that if 364 different religious sects wanted to volunteer to come to the shelter for 90 minutes on the other days of the year, to pose for photos, give the animals attention, and encourage their fellow adherents to adopt, they would absolutely allow that. Absolutely. Because everything is about getting those animals out of the shelter and into happy, loving homes.

If American Atheists spent money on doing that, instead of on lawyers pestering the shelter employees with a stupid lawsuit, maybe I’d start donating to them in addition to my donations to my local animal shelters. I won’t hold my breath.

The post Atheists Sue Over a Priest Visiting an Animal Shelter appeared first on Skepchick.


How Net Neutrality Helps Science Communication

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If you have been on the internet in the past few weeks, you probably already know that on December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether or not to end net neutrality, the regulation that forces internet service providers to not discriminate based on what you’re (legally) using your bandwidth for, whether watching shows on Netflix or posting photos on Instagram or watching me complain about bad science on YouTube.

You also may know that the FCC is most likely going to do it, because they’re a bunch of mostly assholes run by Asshole in Chief Ajit Pai, formerly Associate General Counsel for Verizon. Yes, the Verizon that would absolutely love to charge you extra to watch this video.

You should complain to the FCC anyway, because it can’t hurt. Go ahead, send them an email.

But you should also be prepared for that to not work, so you should be aware of the steps that will follow. First and foremost will be someone challenging the ruling in a court of law, and then there will be appeals, and then there may be a Congressional intervention. Over on Reddit, admins have pointed out the need for personal stories that they can take to Capitol Hill and file in court briefs in order to truly convince politicians and judges that net neutrality is an important ideal to uphold.

With that in mind, I wanted to add my own thoughts. Just sharing science and skepticism with you here on YouTube and on Skepchick has always been a battle against discriminatory companies and algorithms. The recent ad-pocalypse on YouTube is just the tip of the iceberg…I’ve been hurt worse before. Sure, most of my videos of late haven’t been friendly to advertisers so I make nothing off of them, but for years now YouTube’s algorithms that suggest videos to you generally have left out channels of my size, and YouTube/Adsense demonetized any video that went viral due to “suspicious clicks.” Over on Skepchick, Adsense demonetizes articles about the science of human sexuality because they consider it basically pornography (even if there are no photos).

That’s why I’m on Patreon — it’s the only reason I continue to make YouTube videos, because people can individually decide to support what I do. The money I make from Patreon also supports Skepchick, since Adsense is no longer enough to cover server costs there.

So I know that without net neutrality, the situation would be thousands of times worse. If people have to pay to access Skepchick or my YouTube videos, and all of that money is going to Comcast and Verizon, where will they find the extra money to pay me for the work I do? Many of them just wouldn’t. Most of my support doesn’t come from wealthy individuals pledging $100 per video — they come from regular folks who have a few dollars to spare each month for a service they appreciate.

Doing away with net neutrality would not just affect me personally because it will be harder to afford to pay to access all the websites that I access on a daily basis, but it will also make it nearly impossible for me to do what I do: communicate science and skepticism to people who are interested in those topics.

And of course then I’d be out of a job, so I’d have to turn to my backup profession: cooking meth. That’s right, FCC, you’ve made another Walter White. I’m the one who knocks now.

Seriously, though, contact the FCC while you can and get ready for this fight to go to the courts and to Congress. December 14 will likely not be the last time we’ll have to defend net neutrality from greedy media companies.

The post How Net Neutrality Helps Science Communication appeared first on Skepchick.


Why It’s Not Enough to Have Critical Thinking Skills

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Last year, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher published a paper showing a distinction between people who personally value their own critical thinking skills and those who feel a moral imperative for everyone to be rational. The latter group may think they’re above moral indignation until they realize that they think less of a person for making an irrational choice.

That same researcher has teamed up with a colleague in Amsterdam to publish a new paper exploring the traits a person needs to be an active critical thinker — someone who doesn’t hold irrational beliefs about things like religion and the paranormal. What they found isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does merit some discussion: essentially, it’s not enough to have analytical skills. A person also has to be in that group of people who values their own critical thinking skills enough to use them.

This makes sense: I have both a hammer and nails and yet I have a framed print that I haven’t hung up for the past four months. I have the tools, but I lack the motivation to use them because I don’t respect the importance of not having sad, empty walls.

The researchers showed this by asking 300 people questions about their beliefs in conspiracy theories like “the moon landing was faked” and then judging how analytical each person was in their thinking. They also figured out whether the subjects fell into one of the two groups from the previous research — did they value their own critical thinking skills and/or did they have a moral imperative for rationality?

The people who were least likely to believe in nonsense were not necessarily the people who had analytical skills, but those who both had the skills and valued their personal skills. I found it really interesting that there was no correlation between a lack of belief in nonsense and the other group, subjects with a desire for all people to think rationally.

I suspect that many people in the skeptic and atheist communities are in that latter group of people who make moral judgments about those who make irrational decisions, but I’m not sure how many are in the group who truly value their own personal critical thinking skills. I’ve often wondered why a group of people so vocal about critical thinking can hold so many irrational beliefs, like those who think all the social sciences are useless, or (to refer to a video I made last month) who believe anything Steven Pinker says.

The moral of this study (pun intended) is to spend less time worrying about other people’s irrational decisions and more time worrying about your own if you want to rid your world of irrationality.

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Elephants Are Self-aware. Trumps Are Not.

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Back when I was just a baby teenaged magician, I had a friend who was a clown with Ringling Brothers. When I asked him about his time there, the main thing he always wanted to talk about were the elephants. Well, also weird clown groupies that come to the circus and try to seduce clowns, but those stories were neck and neck with elephant stories. He told me how they were the smartest, kindest, loveliest animals he’d ever interacted with. They would remember people by name and face, they’d willingly help out as needed, and they understood music cues better than their human co-workers. Those stories, somewhat ironically, were the impetus for my first realization that elephants were too amazing to be put to work in circuses.

Since that time I (and humanity as a whole) have learned so much more about elephants — they are one of a very few animals to have rituals around death, honoring the bones of even dead elephants they don’t know. They can use tools, they paint pictures, they play instruments, they can mimic sounds including human words — in these ways, they’re a lot like humans, and they even have a brain with a complex neocortex like us.

Unfortunately, none of that seems to matter to the Trump family. Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. have slaughtered several animals, or at least posed with the corpses of several animals that were probably killed by a well-paid tour guide. That includes an elephant, whose tail they sawed off and held up triumphantly.

In a way it’s understandable that they don’t relate to these majestic creatures, because they actually don’t share that many traits with them. Sure, the Trumps can mimic human words and probably paint pictures, but studies have shown that elephants can solve complex problems and are self-aware. Self-awareness studies in animals usually involve putting a little mark on their forehead and showing them a mirror — if they try to touch the mark, it shows that they understand the mirror is showing them themselves.

I’m fairly certain that if you put an “x” on Donald Trump Jr.’s forehead and showed him a mirror, he’d think he was looking at an evil twin of himself from an alternate universe and try to shoot him with a hunting rifle so he could cut off one of his chins as a trophy.

Due to that complete lack of awareness, Trump’s administration has just reversed an Obama-era ban on importing elephant trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe, where there are only about 100,000 elephants remaining in the wild. Obviously the purpose of this is so that Trump’s dipshit progeny can get their toy elephant tail home but the stated purpose is so that more people will go kill elephants but pay to do so, and those payments will fund elephant conservation. This is like saying we’re going to fix lung cancer by letting kids buy cigarettes and giving the profits to the American Cancer Association. It doesn’t work, and we know for a fact it doesn’t work, not just because of common sense but because countries have tried legalizing rhino horn and it led to a huge uptick in the number of rhinos being poached.

Meanwhile, other countries have learned that they can make far more money in tourist dollars by protecting their native species from hunters. But hey, that’s scientifically proven to work, and we know that the Trump family lacks the complex neocortex necessary to understand the data. If only they had more in common with elephants, perhaps they wouldn’t actively contribute to the destruction of several truly remarkable species.

The post Elephants Are Self-aware. Trumps Are Not. appeared first on Skepchick.

school of doubt

Pros of Participation Grades 2

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

2. It makes effort important.

Though this post won’t really deal too much with motivation and grading (ie. whether or not students actually view grades as “important”), there is a good case to be made for allowing effort into an assessment plan. I will not argue that effort is the only thing that matters of that it should be the main factor of a grade. I think that position is a weak one to hold.

However, I do think there is room for students’ effort in some parts of grading. One reason is the fundamental problem with focusing exclusively on success. This is even something that comes up a lot in the skeptic movement. Consider the file-drawer effect: positive studies are over-represented in scientific journals. This creates many problems in science because we are only seeing part of the real picture. Similarly, a recent episode of the SGU podcast talked about how the Nobel Prize is awarded for successful discoveries only and how this is a problem. We need to learn from failures and focusing too much on success created real world problems. Funding for science winds up getting skewed and subtracted when the results aren’t stunning successes, but we need to know about what doesn’t work too.

My students recently watched part of the TED talk “On Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz. She highlights a problem that occurs when a child gets many answers wrong on a test. Other children label that child as “dumb” and this whole situation fosters an attitude that mistakes aren’t okay. We must always be right, because being wrong feels so bad.

A much better TED talk, Julia Galef’s “Why You Think You’re Right – Even If You’re Wrong” shows why this kind of thinking is so bad. Like soldiers, we defend our wrong beliefs against anything that opposes them. But, if we adopt a different attitude, that being wrong is okay, we pave the way to being able to change our minds and think critically instead of only with motivated reasoning.

Effort is worth grading because it allows students to be wrong without being punished for it. They can learn from mistakes without being slapped down because of them. Teachers don’t have to focus exclusively on the narrow aim of students getting everything right. Students can succeed by actually trying.

There are a lot of external factors which affect a student’s actual ability. Grading purely on how “correctly” they can answer questions winds up with the result of assigning grades based on the effects of external factors, like SES or their situation at home. When effort plays a role in a grade, students with the fewest opportunities in life can get a slightly better chance at not being so disadvantaged in schools.

But what about the problems with grading effort? How can teachers actually measure something so abstract? Again, I must point out that there are already a lot of things that teachers grade which are abstract and subjective (consider art, for instance). And once again, a well-designed rubric can preemptively address many of these problems. Still, there can be a real conundrum in deciding that one student didn’t put the same effort as another on a project. If a student is extremely high level, they might not need to put as much effort in to get a great result. This objection brings me back to the topic of this series: participation grades.

The effort I am suggesting that teachers grade is based on what students do in class. That is, what teachers actually observe, in context. It’s one thing to just decide that one paper looked like a student spent more time on it at home, but quite another thing to observe students playing games on their phone instead of writing in class and then turning in an incomplete draft as a final essay. Another student, who may struggle with the language but actually spent the time working, asking for help, and visibly put effort into writing, could get the same grade as the gaming student under purely performance-based criteria. Participation grades allow the hard-working student to be rewarded for actually working hard. Like the socialization argument, this is an attitude that schools want to actively foster in students, hence its logical role alongside other grading methods.

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school of doubt

Pros of Participation Grades 1

I’ve written a series of posts addressing some common criticisms of giving grades for participation in class. For each of those criticisms, there was a strong rebuttal. Basically, they can be summed up as “this isn’t a problem if you do it right.” Now I’m going to go over some of the arguments teachers give in favor of participation grading, and try to include weaknesses of these arguments as well.

1. It can positively contribute to socialization.

This is not a universal benefit; I am only arguing this point as it applies to some implementations of participation grades in some subjects and circumstances. For example, this “pro” would not apply to a math teacher having students shout out their answers to the homework for “class participation” purposes.

This argument is based on a function of schooling. There are many different reasons people cite for having an education system: economic benefits, successful democracies, etc. One of these is also to help promote socialization. One might try to argue that this is only really important for younger grades (like kindergarteners learning how to share and not to hit other kids) or even that this isn’t necessary in school at all. After all, there are plenty of homeschooled children that grow up to be perfectly functional adults. Then again, as the recent “metoo” trend of publicizing sexual harassment which had been going on for years and years has shown, maybe a lot of people need more help being socialized, not less.

Regardless, one of the functions of school is to be a tool for socialization. Students need to learn a multitude of cultural norms to function well and fully participate in their societies. A mismatch between a student’s actual behavior in the world and their expected behavior can be devastating, as this can make them seriously struggle to succeed. Of course, there are certainly downsides to socialization: many norms can be illogical or even unethical (though that depends on whether you subscribe to a more relativistic or objectivist view of ethics).

Additionally, in some subjects, social interactions are a part of the actual content of a course. For example, in art, the students are not only learning about artwork itself, but how to talk about art and how to give and receive criticism. It turns out that there are, in fact, better and worse ways to give someone a critique. In these circumstances, grading participation is not just about checking off that students spoke in class, but considering if they have actually learned how and why to speak in a particular way. There is constructive criticism and nonconstructive criticism. Students can defend themselves with reasoned responses or with defensiveness and counterattacks. These skills are a part of a good art class, and they relate to having successful social interactions in life as well.

When students do not participate in a group critique, they are not demonstrating that they have some of the actual skills required to interpret art. That is, failing to participate means they have failed in a typical grading sense. It’s not an arbitrary extra criterion that the teacher has just lumped on top of the assessment plan, it is a basic and useful part of the actual subject. In this case, participation and student behavior is something worth grading.

In other subjects, particularly in the humanities, group discussions can play a key role in class and are often the focus of participation grades. Here, socialization may be a teacher’s motivating factor. Group discussions don’t just teach students about a particular subject, they teach students how to behave in a group. Giving peer feedback, either verbal or written, can help teach the idea of a social obligation. Reading the material in advance (another item that is often found on some teachers’ participation rubrics) can relate to the idea of an expectation for preparedness. Not only can this show students how to show respect (whether genuine or not) for their teacher, it can also demonstrate a kind of work ethic. All of these things are aspects of socialization.

These are social skills that people need to function well in society, and they are not the kinds of things we could teach well as isolated subjects. The best bet is to integrate them into other subjects, where appropriate. Assessing these skills is typically done though assessing participation. As in the art example, this isn’t a huge leap away from the purpose of a particular class. Students don’t just talk about Shakespeare to learn Shakespeare, they talk to learn how to talk about Shakespeare, and that includes a variety of general participatory behaviors.

As I have brought up before, there are some problems with this socialization argument. It doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s probably a better argument for younger grades, and post-secondary educators need to be very careful that participation really is a part of mastering their subject.

There is another criticism of this reason that is worth addressing. Even granting the importance of socialization and it being a function of schools, why does it need to be graded? Why not just have a behavior policy that is enforced through other means? Aside from this sometimes being impossible (at some levels, a teacher’s grading policy may be the only behavioral enforcement they can do), it meets the purpose of grading in general. Grades are assigned as a reflection of assessment. Assessment is meant to be a way to measure if students have certain knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills taught in schools are meant to serve particular social functions, and socialization is one of those functions. In this way, grading participation is totally appropriate within the context of schools.

Still, if this was the only benefit cited for grading participation, it would not be a very strong case. However, there are a number of other “pros” I will break down in the following weeks.

The post Pros of Participation Grades 1 appeared first on School of Doubt.

school of doubt

Cons of Participation Grades 5

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

5. It is not fair.

This is the last of the “cons” of participation grades I often hear about. The unfairness aspect of participation is typically linked to student personalities, particularly in the case of shy students with “speaking in class” as the measure of participation.

As a former shy student and current shy adult, I can speak to the feeling of unfairness that I must speak out in class. But once again, this objection falls apart with counter-examples. For instance, public speaking classes, which are often required in both secondary and post-secondary education, are no less anxiety-inducing than being obligated to occasionally speak out in class, yet we do not suggest that we shouldn’t have speech assessments.

Furthermore, while the following is a purely anecdotal experience and is in no way intended to be presented as representational of most students, I think my own story is worth mentioning in this context. I hated being forced to speak out in class. I could study well and succeed on essays and tests, demonstrating my mastery of the material in these conventional ways.

Having to speak in class felt completely unnecessary and unjustified. Each class became an exercise in anxiety. I was constantly worried that I wouldn’t be brave enough or find the right opportunity to speak in every lesson.

When I did speak up, I would go red in the face as everyone looked at me. I’d break out in a cold sweat and my heart would race. Every single time. I would dread going to those classes and I still question some of my teachers’ policies to this day (both their motivations for doing so and their “consistency” in grading).

Looking back over my career as a student, I can recall many of these horribly uncomfortable situations, and I am incredibly grateful for them.

I can’t imagine what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t been forced to learn how to interact in group discussions. If I was left to my own devices, I would have sat silently and not had such valuable practice in social interactions and having my ideas directly challenged. I learned that school is supposed to push students outside of their comfort zones, that is what real learning is.

When educators point out that assessing participation is unfair for the shy kids, they are losing sight of some of the purposes of education. It’s not supposed to be easy, comfortable, and un-challenging. Students are supposed to actually learn new skills, and speaking within a group is one of the skills that students are expected to have by the time they finish their schooling.

Of course, my whole story might be irrelevant considering another point. Participation doesn’t have to have anything to do with “speaking in class” at all. There are a variety of other ways that participation can be assessed and very useful purposes it can serve. Now that I’ve covered the cons of participation grades (and briefly touched on how they’re not really cons if the teacher does it right), it’s time to take a look as some of the arguments why the “never grade students’ participation in class” rhetoric might be totally wrong. Let’s look at the pros.

(In a follow-up post.)

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On the Market VII: Job Candidates Are People Too

Another year, another job season. Sigh.

I’ve been on the market for several years now, and regular readers may remember that in that time I have applied to many, many, many jobs. The positions I’ve applied for since finishing my PhD have represented a generous sampling of nearly all that our glorious neoliberal economy has to offer, from tenure track academic posts to generic office drudgery to unskilled minimum wage-slavery. One might think that applying to such a wide variety of jobs might lead to a similarly wide variety of experiences, but this would be wrong. Aside from the fact that the application process for academic jobs is significantly more onerous than it is for most other kinds of work, the overall experience of looking for work is, as it turns out, strikingly, dispiritingly, and resolutely uniform across all sectors.

If there is one thing that seems to unite prospective employers of all stripes, it is a profound lack of what one might euphemistically call “professional courtesy.” One might more directly call it “basic human decency.”

Such lack of courtesy can take many forms. One academic job I applied to asked applicants in the second round of the search to send them a sample syllabus–not in itself an uncommon or particularly onerous demand, except for two additional factors: it had to be tailored to the very unusual and specific nature of their program (and therefore essentially needed to be designed from scratch), and applicants were given only one week to turn it in. Now, for those of you who may not be aware, designing a good upper-level undergraduate course takes quite a lot of work. Even when you are familiar with the material, it takes many hours to search out and sort through potential readings, making sure they are at an appropriate level for the class. Music history courses also require sample pieces that not only fit the reading, but also have scores and recordings available for the students to consult. Assignments and other evaluations need to be designed. And, of course, the whole thing needs to fit a standard 13-week semester with 2-3 class sessions per week. All in all, it’s a good few days of work, assuming you have nothing else going on in your life.

Oh, did I mention the request was sent out on December 22? Just in time to ruin my one week back at home with my family for the holidays.

By far the worst offense in my mind, however, is the now common practice of failing to notify applicants of their rejection in a timely fashion. And I’m not just talking about the now-common boilerplate in most job ads that says they will only contact applicants in which they are interested. While this too is gross, it is at least somewhat understandable in instances where organisations expect to receive many hundreds of applications for a position (although, really, how hard is emailing a form letter?). In academic hiring at least, the community of job seekers has managed to find a workaround for this problem through the many Academic Job Wikis, where applicants who advance in searches can anonymously let everyone else know that the committee has gone forward without them.

Much more painful is advancing in a search and still being left in the dark.

I recently applied for a non-academic job with a large cultural organisation, and was absolutely delighted to be called in for an in-person interview. I thought the interview went quite well, and they seemed impressed with my references, one of whom they knew personally. They even asked by how soon I would be able to start! I was told to expect a decision on a specific day the following week, and I left feeling positive and hopeful.

The following week, I spent that entire day glued to my email, waiting to hear back. Nothing.

I spent the entirety of the next day waiting to hear back. Still nothing.

Not wanting to have to wait a whole weekend to hear back, I finally wrote to them myself to see if there had been a delay in the selection process. Imagine my surprise to receive a rejection not ten minutes later! Clearly they already knew I was not getting the job, but couldn’t be bothered to inform me on the promised date. I later heard from my references that they never even got a call.

Here’s the thing.

Being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment is painful, nerve-wracking, and humiliating. But when it comes to things like employment, applicants have a lot more than self-esteem on the line. We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods. People who are looking for work almost by definition are in a period of financial difficulty and distress. Getting a particular job might even mean the difference in making their rent that month, or even affording food. Their immigration status may depend on it (as mine did and does). Finding new employment is a huge, profoundly life altering process. It is anything but another day at the office.

So here is my plea to those of you who are ever in a position to hire someone else, whether in academia or not: Job applicants are people too, so please treat them as such. Communicate with them in a timely fashion, keep your promises, and don’t make unreasonable demands on people who are almost certainly already having a difficult time of it, especially since they are not being paid for any labour you demand of them.

Here’s hoping part VIII will be a little more positive. Until then, keep on doubting.

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Cons of Participation Grades 4

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

4. Classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading.

This view is quite common among teachers who follow certain schools of thought in teaching. It has three assumptions built in.

First, that things related to class management are clearly distinct from other things we grade.

While this is sometimes true, there are many subjects and situations in which classroom management and curriculum overlap. Let me highlight a clear example of this very situation. In the aforementioned article, the author even agrees with a comment describing this very thing, with neither person realizing it undermined the argument it was presented to support.

Bogatz states in his article (titled Can We Please Stop with the Participation Grades?) “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue. You should never find management strategies and solutions in your grade book.”

One of the comments (sandra) describes her role as a music teacher “I can’t know how well they understand a new concept if they don’t demonstrate how much they know. If the student shows the skill we are learning (“active participation”), and makes noticeable effort to achieve and improve, their grade will be absolutely satisfactory. Sitting motionless when asked to move, chatting or playing with trinkets, or refusing to sing, play games, or instruments will be considered less than satisfactory. […] Do they need to comply and follow instructions? Yes. But not “because I said so,” because that is how you demonstrate the acquisition of skills in the performing arts.”

Bogatz replied that he loved the story and comparison, but both of them seemed to have missed the implication. In cases such as this, “participation” and classroom management were directly related to the subject skills the teacher needed to assess. Refusing to participate in a music class is simultaneously a classroom management issue and a grading issue, for the simple reason that participation is the only means through which certain skills can be assessed.

A second assumption that is built into this claim (we shouldn’t grade participation because classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading) is the idea that participation always relates to classroom management.

Similar to the example above, in the case of a performance-based class, participation is tied in with the skills involved in the subject. Even if one agrees with Bogatz’s claim, there is no reason why a participation grade must be a tool of management.

The third assumption is the statement itself.

I did not set out in this post to debunk Bogatz’s blog post, but it happens to exemplify the very things I aim to discuss here. When he made the claim “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue,” he did not go on to provide evidence or reasoning to support it. It was presented in the same way that I usually see teachers present it, as if it is an obvious statement that does not warrant any argument or justification.

In my own experience as an education student, my classes on assessment addressed including classroom management. Largely, it’s a matter of individual / local school policy. My professors discussed better and worse ways to go about it, in case it came up in our future practices. My classes on classroom management likewise included ways in which grading could be used as one element of a well-managed classroom.

It turns out that there are some good reasons why some classroom management issues should be included in grading (which I will give in a follow-up post).

Finally, there is one more main argument against grading participation that is often brought up:

5. It is not fair.

(Yes, this must also unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

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How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
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Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
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How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
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“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]