Thursday, October 22, 2009

Red air, red state, blue resident

Some of my favorite responses to our local newspaper's question about what Cache Valley residents intend to do toward reducing pollution with the cold season and inversion coming up. Some context: Because we live in a big bowl and have periods of almost no temperature change we get air that is neigh on unbreathable. Think NYC, or LA. We have "yellow air" and "red air" alerts when we're cautioned to not go outside and exercise because it can damage our lungs. We have University of Utah researchers doing breathing tests on our kids on red air days like we're the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. We've shot for the stars and obtained a level of air quality that requires federal intervention.

Here are the quotes:

"Absolutely not! First there was this huge hole in the ozone...Hmmm haven't heard much about that the last several years, huh? THEN they had us all believe that global warming was actually we continue to shatter cold records weekly!! Funny how that talk is ALSO starting to fade now, huh??

I inversion does trap air in the winter within this valley, however, the inversion is not an automatic thing that happens each year. But when it does occur, no doubt some bad air gets trapped..but that is life! Too bad! "

" Yes, I'm going to buy corks for my neighbors' cows. "

" Yes, I plan to ask CVTD to discontinue operation so that we can eliminate the exhaust emissions from engines of empty and near-empty buses. " CVTD is our local bus system. It's a no-fare system supported by tax dollars, some of the buses even run on natural gas

" Limiting my contribution to air pollution isn't the only consideration. Far from it. I plan to drive my vehicles when I feel it necessary. Oh, and I don't pay much attention to those silly flashing signs that indicate red or yellow air day. It's such a trivial aspect to my overall decision to drive to where I drive.

I'd like to see the Nibley CVTD run eliminated. It seldom has very many, if any people on it, but it sure spews out a lot of exhaust. "

" HELLL NO!!!! "

" Because cows produce so much methane, I will eat as many steaks as I can to reduce the cow population. "

" In the interest of seasonal fairness, I'm committed to producing equal levels of pollution throughout the year. "

" Feedback has the right idea, spend more time at the beav and cut back on pollution at the same time, win/win. On top of that I will ride my bike on any weather permitting day, even though its more for exercise than helping the pollution since I don't think its all that big of a problem here. "

" While reducing air pollution for the sake of public health and comfort is a noble goal the cost of such reductions can be measured in the millions of dollars in time and productivity if it even costs on average 5 minuets per person per day.
Reduce pollution when you can but keep in mind the cost of your actions, don't use it as an excuse to reduce productivity. "

" I plan to warm up my diesel truck an extra 10 minutes every morning!


" Inversions are natural and occur in many places. The idea that we cause Cache Valley inversions has no supporting data.

Human induced climate change is unproven. There is no evidence that human production of CO2 is driving the temperature. All we have, at the moment, is debate about the idea. "

How do you get to a place where your response to those personally working towards improving everyone's air quality is not only "no" but "no, and screw you for trying." How does that happen exactly?

Friday, September 18, 2009

A culture of inclusion

Just went to one of the Provost’s lecture series done by Mathew Ouellett. The topic was creating and maintaining a culture of inclusion diversity and social justice. I’m sure I’m going to misrepresent some of the thoughts/discussion so just keep in mind this is from my perspective.

He started off by talking about the admission requirements to Harvard University when it first started, having us all start off with hands raised and dropping them when we didn’t meet one of the criteria. First: Are we male? (I think over half the hands dropped, which is very interesting because I don’t think over half our faculty are women—this suggests that perhaps the topic or the lecture series as a whole is of differential interest). Second: Something along the lines of are we the sons of a minister which lost the rest of us. Later he summarized these slightly differently. 1) Male, 2) son of a landowner (meaning citizenship back then) 3) A Christian, being prepared for the ministry.

As an aside—this brings to mind something that we often forget about the way our country was formed. It was rule by the privileged not only in the sense that elected officials make the decisions, but that those doing the electing were not the population as a whole—only those who owned land. I remember being blown away by that back in high school history class.

Ouellett’s point was that we’ve all (even the White males among us) benefited from affirmative action. He then talked about the hierarchies that are in place within academia. We have a decided pecking order that starts with faculty vs staff, then pretunure vs tenured faculty, then whether or not you have grants and for what amount, then whether or not you have an endowed chair, etc . . . I have to confess that I take a lot of this for granted sometimes to the detriment of my interactions with others. In the last month or so I’ve had two doctoral students say something (one directly and one indirectly) about reacting negatively to my off-hand comments.

This is a new concern to me. I think in a lot of ways the doc students we have now are so much better than my cohort and I. They are publishing more, presenting more, know their methodology better. They have more grant writing experience, you name it and they’re doing better. But for some reason we seemed to have much more swagger back then than they do now.

The discussion then turned to a major theme and his buy-in for it was interesting. The theme is about collaboration and tolerance, and this worked into ways that you might not expect given the topic (see more below). The buy-in was brilliant. Collaboration is what we’re trained to do in the academy. None of us work in a vacuum, we’re the product of the people we’ve worked with and the people we’ve been mentored by, and I would argue, by the people we’re mentoring.

In a spirit of collaboration he encouraged us to find teaching partners. Especially ones coming from a different background than us with respect to diversity. This seems like it has several barriers. Especially recognition and teaching load. What does that look like in your binder? I appreciate that he gave a nod to the fact that formal teaching may not be realistic and he encouraged us to find less formal mechanisms to inform our teaching. This was a contrast to Ken Bain’s statement that we need to change the licensure exams in our respective fields if the assessment doesn’t fit our pedagogical practices. There’s nothing more paralyzing than hearing a far away goal without short term strategies to get there. I left with a feeling that Ouellet was not pitching rhetoric by trying to facilitate change.

Another theme of the talk was about picking your battles (although he didn’t phrase it exactly that way). He talked about having an office above a dormitory and having to ride the elevators and hear “that’s so gay” enough that he spent an entire day doing interventions. It wasn’t effective. It didn’t work because he didn’t have a personal relationship with any of the students—but when things happen in a class, and he mentioned a couple of examples, then you do have a relationship with the students and you have an opportunity to facilitate change.

I also appreciate (again with the spirit of collaboration), that his primary advice on facilitating change wasn’t about making statements but asking questions. One of the faculty mentioned students saying race wasn’t a problem here but was a problem in the ‘Southern States.’ He said it was an opportunity to ask the students about their own race identity, and suggested a couple of specific activities to get them thinking along these lines. If I were thinking about this in Piaget terms he was really asking them to force a moment of equilibration, getting them to think about past events in their own lives that contradict the thought of race not being an issue. He also recognized that there is value in their existing beliefs, that it isn’t about growing up with bad parents or incorrect thoughts.

The other big theme in his talk was failing with grace. As faculty, we don’t make our practice public. Which is so true. When I’m struggling with a new analysis I don’t do it in front of my students. I figure it out, then tell them what I did. As if I magically knew it all along. This is not something we can practice privately because it happens a bit off the cuff. We’ve got to be willing to fail, and most importantly willing to move on from there.

One outstanding question I have: At Lehigh, one of the full professors mentioned that he never brings up politics in his class. I used to quite a bit but since then I’ve resisted (or tried to anyway) precisely because of some of the power relationships Ouellet started off discussing. Who am I to force my opinions on graduate students? So where do we draw the line? It seems like a culture of inclusion is not political to me, but for some that is extremely political. I guess that’s the genius of asking questions rather than making statements, right?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Exceptionally Brazen Sophistry

I think we're writing and reading total crap. Case in point: Medical reform. I was reading a conservative "news article" on this today at the National Review entitled Obama's Dirty Little Secret. At the heart and soul of the arguments expressed is the idea that private health insurance will be priced out of the market and we'll wind up with ObamaCare as the only option. The research for these claims is brought to you in part by the Lewin Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of United Health Group. That's right we get research about how bad it would be to change the private health care system from the private health care system. (I am staunchly resisting the temptation to make an analogy here . . . staunchly . . . and I might add, doing so with aplomb, decorum, and no small amount of class).

The really fascinating thing is that the article has a lot of .50 words. The phrase "exceptionally brazen sophistry"(1) is not something you hear on the street corner every day. This is clearly targeted at people who are smarter than the average bear--but it's incredibly easy to pull apart and dismiss. So why is a reasonably smart person trying to talk to reasonably smart people using "exceptionally brazen sophistry" of his own? I think it's a plot to lend relevance to Woody Allen movies and possibly high school literature like Catch 22.

Don't get me wrong, the National Review doesn't corner the market on ideological drivel. I get a regular helping from two facebook friends straight from the Huffington Post. I'd like to have news that is free of perspective thanks. I can form my own stinking opinions about who to vote for, I already know Glenn Beck is the most funny when he's trying to be deadly serious and frankly your attempt to explain it to me ruins the ride. I know I'm far from the first to feel this way--so where do I go for that sort of thing? Where do I get news sans commentary? Where do I get news about the system instead of from the system? Is there not a free market for that?

(1) As an aside, exceptionally brazen sophistry sounds like the height of stupidity. A subtle deception in argument that is in your face at the same time? Hmm subtle yet bold--sounds like we're describing a wine, possibly one that comes out of a box. How exactly does that work in argumentation? Well--I think we have two great examples here. Obama's claims about being able to keep your private insurer and this article's debunking of those claims as supported by private insurers.