boundaries of performativity, continued

Over on OrgTheory, a discussion of the apparent constancy of color perceptions morphed into a(nother) discussion of performativity and, by inappropriate extension, postmodernism and epistemological skepticism. Rather than hijack that post, I’m moving over here to post some thoughts and critique of Teppo Felin and Nicolai Foss’s paper, “Social Reality, the Boundaries of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and Economics.”

Continue reading “boundaries of performativity, continued”

don’t follow the money

The latest issue of Academe, the AAUP’s magazine, features several articles on corporate and other “suspect” funding, under the title “The Conflicted University.” The articles are varied, and I don’t intend a critique of any particular one. But the overall causal logic is simple–too simple. The claim is that corporate funding (and also nonprofit corporate-oriented funding) necessarily corrupts the research it funds. Continue reading “don’t follow the money”

who are our customers?

It is becoming more and more common to hear about the “customers” of higher education. I will go on record, unsurprisingly, as saying that I do not like this language. However, since it is becoming so common, I think it’s worth reflecting too on who these customers are, and also what the product is that they’re purchasing. This is both philosophically important and practically so with respect to grade inflation, one of my ongoing concerns.

The presumption when this is raised is often that the customers are the students in the room. Hence we are to deliver a satisfactory product to those students who have registered for our classes. And, when it comes to grading, a “satisfactory product” often ends up meaning an A. This becomes all the more so when the syllabus is conceptualized as a contract between professor and student, such that adequate completion earns the full payment, the A. I far prefer adequacy to earn a B- or C, and exceeding adequacy to earn grades higher than that.

But I digress. Let me suggest that our customer is actually The Public — not its individual components, not the student body as a whole, not the alumni and donors, not the taxpayers, certainly not whichever students happened to register for a given course. For public and private universities alike, tuition dollars cover only a fraction of the cost of education, and sometimes (as at UNC) a very small fraction. But more importantly, virtually every university has a public mission and claims institutional, financial, and moral responsibility for that mission. So as we create, communicate, and disseminate knowledge, we should be thinking about the collective public as our customer, not about the students. In many cases we may serve our customer better by being more demanding and less accommodating to the students.

Finally, let me point out that even if you reject my case above, what we are supposed to be “selling” is education and knowledge — not grades or credentials. So serving the students appropriately often involves being less accommodating than we sometimes are!

health, wealth, and history

The economist blog hosts a great video by Hans Rosling on health and wealth by country over time:

The data visualization and interpretation are excellent. However, the conclusion he draws–that “everyone can make it” in the future, that all countries are moving toward the “healthy, wealthy” corner–strikes me as very problematic for two reasons. Reason one is actually statistical: the slope remains pretty substantial as time goes on, it’s just that the intercept is moving upward. So inequalities by health and wealth seem likely to persist. Reason two is more sociological: he doesn’t mention threats to health and equality such as agricultural threats, ecological threats, or global underemployment.


the whole university

I’ve been worrying a lot about how public universities will survive in tough political and economic times like these, and associated with that I’m concerned that universities (like UNC) are often “sold” to the public as:

  1. Low-cost undergraduate education;
  2. Exciting athletics; and/or
  3. “Innovation machines” for producing technical advances.

I do not dispute that  universities are all of these, but they are much more too, and I worry that we shoot ourselves in the intellectual foot by emphasizing only these three in underwriting the value of a public intellectual engine. Imagine my delight, therefore, to see the below video displayed on the giant screens at the Smith Center at the Barton College game:

There it is – the whole university in all its glory. Great job, UNC News Services!


spending endowments in a recession

A friend (at Duke, nonetheless no less) and I were talking about the fact that, in the recession, both our institutions have used their considerable endowments pretty conservatively; my undergraduate college, Swarthmore, has been similar. Essentially they treat the interest coming off the endowment as current income, preserving principal.

The issue, though, is that this makes endowment spending cyclical, basically correlated with income from other sources, such as state funding (at a public university), tuition raises, donations, and even grant money. I imagine that a less risk-averse university could actually claim impressive returns to its endowment by spending counter-cyclically. Certainly these benefits could be intellectual or mission-based, as in the ability to hire faculty for relatively little money because of weak job markets. But I imagine the benefits could be financial as well, in the form of increased alumni donations, potential revenues from discoveries, grant income, and so on. What am I missing? Why does it seem like nobody is seeking to spend endowment money aggressively this way?

outsourcing grading

The New York Times links to a story from the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a professor of business law and ethics at the University of Houston who felt that her TAs were overburdened with essays to grade, and therefore decided to outsource grading to a firm called EduMetry.

EduMetry assessors in India, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries grade and give feedback on exams and including writing assignments.  According to the Chronicle article, “The company argues that professors freed from grading papers can spend more time teaching and doing research.”

Who can argue with more time for doing research … but isn’t grading integral to figuring out what students need in planning lectures and seminars?   I wonder if the undergraduates feel they’re getting value for their tuition with outsourced grading?  I can’t help but envision a slippery slope … outsourced faculty?

If anyone works or teaches at a school that outsources grades, I’m curious about the administrative process for approving outsourcing.  Was there a debate and what was it like?

morality and markets

Somewhere recently I was reading about moral markets (e.g., making purchase decisions for moral reasons. ) Sadly now I can’t remember where that was…. but nevertheless I was thinking of it when I received an email from the Coalition of Imokalee Workers (CIW) juxtaposing the behaviors of Aramark and Publix with regard to the CIW’s demands for justice for tomato farmworkers in Florida. The CIW website currently has the article up, but I can’t figure out how to link directly to that article. The important links are to this editorial and this article. This is an interesting real-world dispute over the market vs. nonmarket preferences in governing organizational behavior.

“or corrupted”

“Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.”

New York Times, January 21, 2010

My research on technological change is guided by the actor-network theory approach, which holds that objects matter as political actors.  Think of the ways that birth control pills, transportation infrastructures, and communication technologies all have had political consequences.  Latour even refers to a figurative “parliament of things” that interrupts and intervenes in political life.  Of course, actor-network theory has been criticized for, among other things, flattening out the distinctions between different types of actors.  Yesterday the US Supreme Court did some flattening of its own.  They extended to corporations (and unions and nonprofits) the First Amendment right to free political speech.  Will we now be governed by a literal “parliament of things” as corporations speak freely by spending freely in support of candidates and causes aligned with their financial interests?  Part of what I found in my dissertation is that corporations’ interests shift regularly and profit is not corporations’ only goal.  But if I may make a normative statement, my own findings not withstanding, this decision stinks.  Unless, unless … the court could also extent to corporations all the rights and burdens of individual people – to vote, to be arrested, to be convicted of crimes, to go to jail?  Could corporations eventually be executed in states that have capital punishment?

I can’t resist pointing out that this morning, when I went to the Supreme Court website and clicked on the decision, “Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n” I got the following error message:  “format error:  not a PDF or corrupted.”  Apparently technologies can now act as political commentators too.

the egalitarian u.s. health care system?

Tyler Cowen writes:

Since old, high-bank-account white males have lots of social status and power, [believers in egalitarianism] cannot bring themselves to regard those males as holding very poor overall endowments.

Cowen claims that the poor old rich white guys’ supposedly “poor overall endowments” arise from the impairment of their human capital at the more-or-less imminent end of life. There might be half of an argument here if human capital were the only component of individual wealth. Instead, we have Shorter Tyler Cowen: The rich actually aren’t so rich if you don’t count their money. Whether and to what extent marrying Neutron Jack increased Mrs. Suzy Welch’s human capital as distinct from social and financial capital is left as an exercise for the reader.

Continue reading “the egalitarian u.s. health care system?”

where did the money go?

Disclaimer: this post is on a topic about which I don’t really know that much. Thus please don’t feel slighted if I fail to cite you or a favorite scholar on the topic.

NPR ran a fun story this morning with two reporters and a GMU economist (horror of horrors!) to address the common-sense question: where did the money go when the housing bubble burst? Essentially the economist and one of the reporters traded hundred-dollar bills for a plastic house, and they noted that the “size” of the economy wasn’t any smaller at the end of the set of transactions than it was at the beginning, even though the economist (ha!) had lost money on the purchase and resale of the house. Continue reading “where did the money go?”

the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public

A common concern raised lately about the incoming Obama administration is that the past eight years have vastly reduced the capacity of the US federal state to do anything. This is principally a function of the incredibly reckless economic behavior of the Bush administration, but it’s also because the rhetoric of “Homeland Security” and “War on Terror” have, IMHO, been used to erect an artificial barrier between state-as-police (which has been ascendant, both domestically and overseas) and state-as-ally (which has been on the decline). The outcome: a radically constrained notion of publicness; the evacuation of the public. Continue reading “the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public”

magical and rational

It is a strange, fascinating oxymoron of American politics that magic and rationality coexist, no less than in our politics. Political scientists have been trying to capture this with reference to emotion; others with reference to religion in politics. None of this has seemed particularly convincing to me; this morning, though, I read Arjun Appadurai’s post on the Immanent Frame, which captures at least the magic side very nicely.

That said, this post too doesn’t seem to grasp the oxymoronic character of it — oxymoronic in the techical sense, as a contradiction that is meaningful, not just wrong. Both campaigns, both candidates, all ideological approaches combine a kind of transcendence and a kind of paean to rationality here.

bad borrowers or bad loans?

The right-vs-left contest over the credit crisis seems to have crystallized to some extent into whether the crisis was the outcome of regulators forcing banks to loan to bad borrowers (the right-wing version) or of under-regulated banks and financial institutions peddling bad mortgage products and then aggregating them into un-valuable derivatives that “clogged” the credit system (ahh, such metaphors!).

A UNC researchers has produced a rather interesting report (PPT format) suggesting that it is more the latter than the former: “bad” borrowers with “good” loans didn’t default at a particularly high rate; it was “bad” borrowers with “bad” loans who did so.

The implications of this question are vast. If the problem is forcing banks to adopt bad borrowers, the policy implication is to deregulate, repeal the CRA, and so on, which would clearly have major effects on systematic wealth inequality over time. If the problem is the proliferation of weird mortgage-based financial products and instruments, the implication is to re-regulate markets, which would likely sacrifice some degree of growth for greater stability and equality.

the ruling class and the bailout

Whew. I found myself in uncharted territory this afternoon. On my way to picking my son up from school, I heard Newt Gingrich interviewed on NPR about his opposition to the bailout, expressed in his recent post on the National Review blog. And I agreed with him. Ugh! The Newt Gingrich, the one of Contract On America fame. So then I began wondering: who the heck is actually for this harebrained bailout idea anyway? More after the break. Continue reading “the ruling class and the bailout”