Author Archives: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

dear committee members

Letter of recommendation season is upon us, and I helped get myself in the mood by reading Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a novel that is written entirely as a series of letters of recommendation that an English professor writes for different people. It’s a tough constraint for a novel, as it requires complete abandonment of the advice to authors to “show, don’t tell.” The book also wavers in its purpose between being an academic farce, a la Straight Man, and something far more somber.

But the protagonist is very well-drawn as an aging professor who no longer cares if he stays on point when writing letters and is nevertheless often quite effective because of it. And the letters include all kinds of great bits on life in the academy. I’ll include three favorites after the jump: Continue reading

why is it so easy for social science to get it backwards?

In the last couple of months I’ve had occasion to read three different papers that I thought were persuasive about a particular pattern of association between two variable correct, but were probably incorrect about the direction of influence. That is, the paper was all framed around the idea that X influences Y, whereas my conclusion was that the association more likely reflecting the influence of Y on X. While there are various strategies one can use to estimate parameters in the face of reciprocal causality and reverse causality, none of these papers had anything convincing to offer in this respect.

Anyway, here’s the part that I think is systematic: much of quantitative social science pursues the idea that some specific thing influences some more general thing–to be pithy, that a little thing causes a bigger thing–whereas the overwhelming way that the social world works is that general things have very broad effects that leak into all kinds of specific manifestations.

(Yes, I recognize this would be clearer with a concrete example and so apologize for the coyness. As recompense, I’ll offer a free diagnostic: if a paper seems to be structurally framed around the idea that X leads to Y, but at the same time the authors offer specific disavowals of their interest in causality, you should probably consider this a red flag that the authors have the independent and dependent variables of their study mixed up.)

nfl domestic violence policy

This is happily far more unequivocal than I was expecting (HT: Daily Beast):

Roger Goodell sent a letter Thursday to 32 NFL owners describing new policies for domestic violence incidents. A first offense will result in suspension without pay for six games, and a second offense will result in a lifetime ban from the NFL. “We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place,” Goodell wrote. “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

what happens in cusco stays in cusco

At least it does if you don’t speak Spanish. On the other hand, if you do, here is an official document from the local Tourism Police about what happened to me there. They just e-mailed it to me and, even with the aid of Google Translate, I can't figure it out. I don't think I need to know, but I'll post it here sans comprehension as a cautionary tale for any Spanish-speaking readers who might be considering leaving behind electronic equipment in the back of an illegal taxi in the middle of Peru.*

Incidentally, regarding Machu Picchu: even though an unsustainable number of tourists are allowed to visit there each year, if you get the opportunity, you should add to the problem and go. It’s so large you still get a lot of great views, especially if you do Wayna Picchu. I highly recommend reading Last Days of the Inca before you visit, and it’s a great book anyway if Unbelievably Sad History is your thing.

* Of course I feel stupid for having done this, although I do so many absent-minded things when I travel that I would be lying if claimed to be greatly surprised by any lapses at this point.


Posted here for posterity: my first appearance in a Vine video (thanks to @kimberlybrogers).

The backstory is that, as Social Psychology section chair, I was supposed to keep and pass on our section’s gavel, but because I was coming to the meetings directly from Australia, I wasn’t able to bring the gavel with me. So right before our business meeting I had to rush to a store and find something gavel-ish that I could improvise. As a fellow blogger on our masthead can confirm, the trick shown may be simple, but nevertheless I tried it roughly 20 times as we were chatting before the meeting, and came nowhere close to getting it to work.

northwestern is hiring!

We are hiring for two positions. One of them is an open position, for which I presume there is little extra need to get the word out. But we are also hiring a new “Assistant Professor of Instruction,” which is a job title that did not exist when I started my sabbatical (although the basic type of position has existed under the heading of “Continuing Lecture Faculty”). That position got some attention last year in a study indicating that instructors in this position performed as well in the classroom (in the metric of the study) as tenure-line faculty.

I’ll paste the ad below the jump. I don’t know anything about the ad’s stated preference for candidates with “demonstrated experience working with diverse student communities.” I completely adore Northwestern, but compared to my previous stints at middle-American public universities, the NU student community feels noticeably less diverse except with regard to race/ethnicity and geographic origin. On the upside, perhaps, a palpable part of this lower diversity is the overall high classroom performance of so many of our undergraduates.

Continue reading

grad skool rool?

Fabio mentioned he’s planning an update of his Grad Skool Rulz. Several months ago I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. While I wouldn’t recommend the whole book, I do adore the quote that Newport uses for his title, which comes from Steve Martin. As Newport tells it:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

The implication for academia for me is that I think it’s common for aspiring sociologists–especially if in the throes of Bourdieu–want to think about academia as a game and think about advice in terms of figuring out how to play the game. And of course there are political elements to academia, and every accomplishment involves the subjective judgments of others (although this is even more the case for stand-up comedy). My worry is that it’s easy to get distracted by all that and miss the main task, which is: work toward trying to be able and do excellent things.

socsters are doin it for themselves

Kieran has scraped and redone the ASA meeting online schedule so that one can easily add sessions to one’s calendar. In addition to making it easier to navigate the meetings, he has perhaps also spared us a round of lavishly dubious explanation for why something has to be the way that it is and why it would cost exorbitant amounts to be any different. That is: a larger parable might be drawn, but I have a course to prep and some fùtbol to cheer, so you’re on your own.

milkman make this happen

I’m in a B&B in Mexico City, marking my first night in my home hemisphere in nearly eleven months. Travels ahead that culminate in ASA, so posting from me will presumably be light.

During the 30 hour trip to get here, one of the films I saw on the plane was Tim’s Vermeer–in which a tinkerer without experience painting tries to reproduce a Vermeer using optics and a lot of craftsmanship–and I highly recommend it. Produced/directed by Penn and Teller. So, more than this: instead of An Evening With Malcolm Gladwell at ASA, we should try to get An Evening With Penn and Teller.

teaching as treaty

Article in TNR about the shortcomings of elite education. While a digression from the author’s overall argument, I found this paragraph particularly… provocative:

At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “nonaggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.

true d.

I binge-watched all eight episodes of True Detective recently. Favorite quote from the series:

Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.

the con in “economic impact” study

Cute paragraph from Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics:

[T]he trick for American [sports team] owners is to persuade the taxpayer to cough up for stadiums. This is where economists come in handy. Economists like to say that people respond to incentives. Well, economists certainly respond to incentives. Anyone hoping to persuade taxpayers to pay for a stadium in the US commissioned an economist to write an “economic impact” study. By a strange coincidence, these studies always showed that the stadium would make taxpayers rich. (One book describing this racket is aptly called Field of Schemes.)

stinchcombee practice round: beauties avoid bogeys

Recent reading about elite sport led me to an article finding that more attractive women have lower scores in women’s professional golf (HT: @KevinKniffin). From the abstract:

There is evidence that attractive looking workers earn more than average looking workers, even after controlling for a variety of individual characteristics. The presence of such beauty premiums may influence the labor supply decisions of attractive workers. For example, if one unit of a product by an attractive worker is more rewarded than that by her less attractive coworker, the attractive worker may put more effort into improving her productivity. We examine this possibility by analyzing panel data for individual female golfers participating in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. We found that attractive golfers recorded lower than average scores and earn more prize money than average looking players, even when controlling for player experience and other variables related to their natural talents.

It’s not a very convincing analysis: there are only 132 women golfers in the sample, and the effect involves this spline where really it’s a difference between the most attractive golfers and everyone else, and it’s unclear from the write-up whether the results are just a Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer effect. BUT, while reading it, I found it a good mental exercise to think about alternative explanations for the pattern if it was actually true (a la the Stinchcombe Test), so I’m posting this for anyone else who might enjoy the imagination workout.

the genius of lebron james

Bill Simmons has an article wondering if LeBron James is a genius, talking about his decision-making and tacit understanding of basketball.

When LBJ participated at the NBA combine as an 18 year old, he was 6’7 1/4 inches tall. Some sources say he has since grown to 6’8″. Since 2000, NHANES has measured heights on 6,267 US men between 18-45. Of these, 8 are 6’7″ or taller (1 in ~750), and 2 are 6’8″ or taller (1 in ~3000).

LBJ also had a 7’0 1/4″ inch wingspan at the NBA combine. This makes his wingspan to height ratio about 1.06, about the average for NBA players, but unusually large otherwise. That is, without even getting into his vertical leap, etc.: he’s got a > 99.95 percentile skeleton just by his height and arm length.

Toward the question of “genius”: two implications seem to follow. Continue reading

do we think one head is better than two?

Robb Willer sent me a link to this study “When Multiple Creators Are Worse Than One: The Bias Toward Single Authors in the Evaluation of Art.” It presents a series of experiments suggesting that people have a lower evaluation of artwork if it is presented as a collaborative effort rather than as a work of a single artist.

Of course this gets one thinking about the strong premium that is placed in some quarters of sociology on sole-authored work. Granted, this usually comes up in the context of individual evaluation, with the argument that it is hard to determine what the contribution of one person is on a multiple-authored work. But, can it have consequences for the evaluation of the work itself? Given that the findings of the experiment are about art, one possibility is that bias varies along the humanities science spectrum in sociology, where there’s bias toward single-authored work in humanities-oriented sociology and perhaps even against it in science-oriented sociology.


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