on the grounds for political dispute

In a heated[1] debate among me, Ezra Zuckerman, and Kieran Healey, Ezra argues that

purity in one’s constructionism… means forswearing political action, or at least any political action that is justified in terms of a critique of social valuations and the institutions that support them.

I disagree, on the grounds that political action is adequately grounded in perceived self-interest, moral valuation, etc., and depends essentially upon persuasion and power, not Truth. I use the word “agonistic” to describe this claim, borrowing from Chantal Mouffe’s approach. Continue reading “on the grounds for political dispute”

ask a scatterbrain: gifts from grad students

A reader writes:

Dear Scatterplotters,

It’s Thanksgiving time here in the US and, as graduate students, we often feel pretty thankful towards our committees, letter of recommendation-writers, and so on. Often, we want to express our gratitude somehow, but it’s not at all clear what might be an appropriate way to do so. For example, would it be appropriate to give your letter-writers chocolates or homemade candy as thank yous? In general, what are some guidelines for appropriate gift giving?

~Thankful Grad Student

scatterbleg: income and altruistic wishes

My wife is working on a project that demonstrates, among other things, that lower-income adolescents report “wishes” on a survey that are more for themselves, such as housing, cars, etc., where higher-income adolescents report more wishes that are altruistic for the world, e.g., the end of global warming or poverty. She is looking for sociological references to back up this (unsurprising) finding and/or to document mechanisms for it. Any thoughts?


ginsberg, the fall of the faculty

A few weeks ago I had a long plane ride and used it to read Benjamin Ginsberg‘s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Ginsberg, a distinguished political Scientist at Johns Hopkins, made headlines with this book and excerpts appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I was eager to read it as I expected to find myself in broad agreement.

Sadly, it is a terrible book. Its evidence consists nearly exclusively of politically-charged anecdotes strung together; its overall claim is only tangentially related to some of those anecdotes; and an inordinate proportion of the anecdotes refer to disputes that took place at the author’s own institution.

Continue reading “ginsberg, the fall of the faculty”

late penalties

Anyone want to take a break from political news and reflect on grading policies? Specifically, what penalties are appropriate for late papers and exercises? In practice, these range from the extremely Draconian “no late work accepted at all, you just get a zero” to the extremely lax “whenever” and include a huge middle ground of grade reductions and policies about which excuses for lateness are justified or not.

My own policies are not entirely consistent but tend to the middle ground: I think students should get more credit for doing work than for not doing it, even if it is late, but that there should be penalties for lateness that are proportional to the academic harm done (or advantage gained).

food for thought from/re graham spanier

The below comes from my colleague Philip Cohen. (Spanier was president of Penn State from 1995 until yesterday):

Excerpts from Graham Spanier’s article: “Higher Education Administration: One Sociologist’s View,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 295-300, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1389050.

I truly believe that it is something like athletic accomplishment. To be really good you must want to do it, be willing to make the sacrifice, put in the hours of preparation, and stick with it against sometimes great odds. But apart from such commitment, only some will move to positions at the highest level, because some basic personal characteristics must be there to begin with and they are not easily learned. The most dedicated athlete may simply not make the cut. Similarly, some faculty just aren’t cut out for administration, despite a keen interest in it.

Continued involvement in the profession doesn’t have to focus on the collection of original data. It can entail involvement in association leadership positions, an occasional book review, an essay of the sort that an “elder statesman” might write, and teaching a course from time to time. Such involvement is also good insurance. Administrative positions have always been vulnerable, and are increasingly so. Academics must preserve the opportunity to return to a productive role as a faculty member, not just the right to return to a tenured position.

My plea is not that administrators should have thick skins. Rather, one needs perspective. One must be prepared to feel bad, be able to survive it, and then bounce back quickly-very quickly-and get everything back on track. If you can’t handle the occasional attack, don’t subject yourself to it. (On the other hand, if this happens a lot you are probably doing something wrong and shouldn’t be in the job in the first place.)

Don’t accept an administrative position unless you are prepared to make every decision in relation to what is best for the institution. You should have your own agenda, of course, but every decision must be weighed in relation to the good of the university. The easy decision is often one that is not best for the department, college, or university in the long run. If you can’t make that tough decision, don’t take the job.

Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution. Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle.

blood pressure, the slavery hypothesis, and social construction

My wife is a physician, and like many doctors was taught in medical schools that African Americans are susceptible to hypertension, and particularly salt-sensitive hypertension, as a result of genetic selection through conditions during the middle passage. I raised this possibility in chatting with Liana Richardson, a postdoc here at UNC, about her very interesting work  on hypertension as a biomarker for stress over the life course, and in particular as a marker for high stress among African Americans. Her response was very interesting, and illustrates an example of cross-disciplinary information flows.

Continue reading “blood pressure, the slavery hypothesis, and social construction”


Wherein I wonder about a sentence, learn a lot, and end up with more questions.

The first hymn in church yesterday was titled “Great Spirit God” (one of two translations of Wakantanka Taku Nitawa in our hymnal). The music note said the tune is Lacquiparle, “Native American melody (Dakota) Adapt. Joseph R. Renville, 1842.” This hymnal has a short background note for each hymn. This one said:

“Recollecting the accounts told by his grandfather and others, Sidney Byrd stated: ‘This hymn was sung by thirty-eight Dakota Indian prisoners of war as they went to the gallows at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in American history.”

That caught my attention! The minister’s introduction mentioned theNative American provenance but not the scene of people singing it while they were being hanged.

When I got home, I looked it up. The note is a pointer to the 1862 Sioux uprising, one of the hundreds of battles in the three-hundred year war of the conquest of North America by Europeans.  From the point of view of many native people, especially Dakotas, those executed were martyred freedom fighters, while from the point of view of European and Euro-American settlers they were murderers who brutalized innocent and peaceful settlers. From what I read, it seems likely that the men really were singing as they were marched to their hanging with linen bags over their heads, but what they were singing and what it meant is less clear. Continue reading “footnote”

if the university is a body, what organ is athletics?

In the wake of athletics scandals, general budget cuts, and a new athletic director, questions of how athletics fits into the University in general are high on the agenda these days. Yesterday there was a forum with the outgoing Athletic Director, Dick Baddour, and several other people involved in athletics, to discuss the role of athletics. (I couldn’t go because we had a faculty meeting at the same time.) In the Daily Tar Heel story about the meeting, Faculty Athletics Committee chair Steve Reznick is quoted as saying:

Athletics is part of our body. You can’t just remove the pancreas.

Now, the corporeal metaphor is interesting enough on its own, but the choice of pancreas is really creative. It does turn out that pancreatectomy has a very poor prognosis, probably because the pancreas’s contribution to the body is made up of many different roles. Here’s my imagination of the upcoming game next Friday. I can hear Jones Angell now, the new voice of the Heels, aboard the USS Carl Vinson: 26 seconds to go in the second half, Carolina behind 78-75, Marshall with the ball, President Obama on his feet but fearing the worst. Angell has the call:

Marshall gets the inbound pass and crosses the timeline. Marshall takes it inside, fakes the dish to Zeller, then kicks it back out to Henson for the three at the buzzer. The game goes into overtime, all thanks to a sensational play by Kendall Marshall. That kid is all pancreas!

And so, dear readers: if your university is a body, what organ is athletics?

gwen lister, courageous journalist, steps down

In 1985, in the midst of the Apartheid occupation, an incredibly courageous journalist, Gwen Lister, founded The Namibian, an independent, populist newspaper. It became one of very, very few independent papers to take up the cause of The People after independence. I worked for The Namibian in 1991-1992 as it was making the transition from fighting for national independence to being fiercely independent itself. Gwen stepped down as editor earlier this month, handing over the reins to protege Tangeni Amupadhi and fulfilling a long-term goal of letting the paper survive past her leadership. CNN did a great special on Gwen’s life work:




Congratulations, Gwen, on a brave and amazing career at The Namibian.