Friday, January 30, 2009

Hazing and the Idols of the Marketplace

One of my students recently sent me a link to a year-old news article about hazing. It reports the results of a university study, in which researchers concluded that there's an awful lot of hazing still going on, even though most clubs and fraternities have banned it.

The most interesting thing to me about the study is its definition of hazing. It includes binge drinking, singing in public, and events (like skits) where participants are mocked.

Back when I was an undergrad, I was in both ROTC and Sigma Chi (a national fraternity). I didn't drink, and still don't. I don't smoke or do drugs, and never have. I've never been to a strip club. At no point did my fellow participants ever force (or try to pressure) me to do any of those things. (Indeed, I was not the only non-drinker in my fraternity.) I've always been fairly proud of my chapter, in part because it was so welcoming to a square, goody-two-shoes like me. If you'd asked me before I read this study whether the Iota Alpha chapter of Sigma Chi hazed, I would have said no, emphatically.

And I still do.

It's easy to define your way into a problem, and it looks to me (from the news article -- which might be distorting the study a bit; it's hard to tell) like that's what the researchers have done. Sir Francis Bacon might accuse them of worshiping the Idols of the Marketplace, his way of saying that they allowed the fuzziness of words to get in the way of truthful science.

When I was in the fraternity, I sang in public. It's something Sigs do. We serenade. (We have, in fact, perhaps the most famous fraternity serenading song in existence.) As a member of ROTC, I called cadence during runs. It's part of the culture -- a thing that everyone does, not a punishment inflicted only on newbies. If you don't like either of those things, you don't join. Similarly, if you don't like singing in public, don't join the church choir, or go Christmas caroling. I don't know very many people who would count singing in such groups as hazing, but the researchers apparently did. By doing so, they increased the amount of hazing in the country, not in actuality, but in the realm of words -- in Bacon's marketplace.

Okay, you might say, putting singing in that definition was a little iffy, but the drinking stuff seems reasonable.

Not necessarily. I knew guys in the fraternity who drank a lot during parties. I knew guys who didn't drink at all. The thing is, according to my understanding of the study's "hazing" definition, all of the guys who willingly filled their cups with more beer than was strictly healthy were being hazed.

By whom, exactly?

The last I checked, a verb requires a subject. Who is doing that hazing, when the definitions are so broad? Who hazed the handful of Brothers I knew who engaged in binge-drinking? They certainly didn't have to. I never had a single beer, nor a single calorie of heat from Brothers over my lack of enthusiasm for alcohol. Who hazed me, when I went to public places and sang with my Brothers? It was fun. I liked doing it, or would have done something else. If I had to point a finger, I wouldn't know where to aim it.

I have no doubt that hazing is alive and well. I also have no doubt that in some cases, it does involve binge drinking or singing -- when it is forced for the amusement of observers, rather than volunteered for the enjoyment of participants.

But it looks suspiciously to me like the researchers in this case looked at Greek organizations, wrote down a list of every activity they could think of Greeks engaging in, and made that their definition of hazing.

In short, it looks like, to them, being Greek equals being hazed.

If that's true, they're not really doing science. To understand what they are doing, you'll first need to recall that their definition of hazing also includes public mockery or embarrassment.

And that's what I suspect they're doing: They're trying to embarrass organizations they don't approve of, in the hopes they'll shrink away and cease to exist.

Put bluntly: The scientists are hazing the Greeks.

And in doing so, ironically, they've proved their implied thesis. Being Greek does equal being hazed after all. But now, it's by academics.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mutual Assured Destruction

Last year I was teaching a 1A class that met at 7:10 a.m. (yuck), and one morning when I dragged myself in, I saw an interesting thing: My students were there, but they were in the process of packing up their bags. They were all about to leave.

They seemed stunned to see me.

"Where's everyone going?" I asked, thinking that perhaps I hadn't heard about some evacuation warning.

"We thought class was canceled," a student replied. She was looking puzzled, but perhaps more than that, annoyed. She seemed a little cross at me.

I looked at my watch. I was on time. In fact, a minute early.

"Why'd you think it was canceled?" I asked, setting down my bag and books. At this visual cue, the other students started settling back in.

The young woman who'd answered my first question (I'll call her Jane for now) appeared to take charge at this point.

"Well, your Blackboard site certainly gives that impression," she said. "Your list of office-hour appointments on Blackboard shows that you're meeting in your office with students right now, so you can't be holding class, too."

I hesitated. That didn't sound right. "I'm pretty sure," I finally said, "that I haven't scheduled any office appointments for 7 a.m."

"No, Mr. Scott: You have a bunch of them. I read it last night," Jane said, firmly. "It seemed pretty clear that class must have been canceled."

"Really?" I was puzzled, and pretty sure she was confused. But just in case ... "Perhaps we ought to look at the schedule."

So I turned on the classroom computer, pulled up the schedule on the overhead, and Jane became mortified when there weren't any appointments on the schedule for that morning. She turned beet red, stammering that she must have misread it.

A couple of weeks after the term ended, I got my evaluations: "Mr. Scott really needs to work more on not embarrassing students in class," read one comment, and another from the same class echoed the sentiment. At least one of those comments was not from Jane. (Most of the feedback was positive, but those comments got to me a little.)

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, these sorts of challenges are getting more and more common for some reason. I don't mind challenges per se, particularly when they're correct -- if I've made a mistake, a publicized correction is crucial if students are to learn.

And it's not so bad when the student is wrong, but challenges me in private (by email, or in my office). We can settle those privately. No one needs to know about the student's error, and much embarrassment is prevented.

But when a student issues one of these challenges in the classroom, and the student is wrong, I have a hell of a dilemma. Consider:

Many times, the issue is critical -- something that other students in the class, listening to the exchange, really need to be clear about.

1. In such an instance, I can save the student's ego by allowing the mistake to stand -- and watch the rest of the class leave misinformed about something important.

2. Or I can say, "Gee, I'll check on that, and get back to you," to the student. In that case, the student is corrected, but the class is not -- it walks out the door just as misinformed as with option #1.

3. Or I can clarify the situation, which invariably (no matter how hard one tries to be gentle about it) embarrasses the student who just walked out on that limb, and then read in my evaluations about how I embarrassed someone. I generally choose this option, and tolerate the comments.

Of course, there are situations (like with the "canceled" class described earlier), in which the issue doesn't appear critical to the lessons being taught -- it's something "miscellaneous." These are actually trickier.

1. It's tempting to imagine (particularly if you are not a teacher) that if Jane says loudly in front of others that I scheduled office hours during class time, that there's really no reason to correct her in view of fellow students. One might assume I can say, "Oh, really? That's weird. I'll have to look into that," and simply move on with the lesson. But it's not quite that simple.

2. The problem is that letting Jane spout off makes teaching more difficult: It's an ethos thing. When students hear complaints voiced, but they don't hear the teacher actually confirm that the charges are true or false, they become more inclined to think the teacher has made other, big mistakes as well, and is simply keeping quiet about them. 1 In this environment, students become less inclined to wonder whether they themselves have erred. (When human beings already have one "likely suspect," they are reluctant to look for a second.) Worse, many of those students keep these suspicions to themselves, and mutter them to each other in the back of the room. The teacher, unaware of many of the grumbles, can't address them. At a certain point, it can become very difficult to teach, if the class is convinced you're a goof. The class just stops listening. I've seen this as a student. I've seen it when observing other classes. And in one very, very bad summer-school class I taught five years ago, I saw it happen to me. It's ugly no matter where in the classroom you sit.

3. The problem is that correcting Jane in class risks screwing things up, too. Even if you've tried to be gentle about it, clarity requires firmness, and audiences sometimes mistake firm for cold or cruel. As a result, students sometimes decide you're a mean old ogre (like Shrek, but without the charming accent or sense of humor). They stop speaking up in the classroom. They stop taking risks. They stop coming to office hours for help with problems. But perhaps worst of all, they stop learning -- people simply aren't inclined to listen to people they think will be mean to them. It's another ethos thing.

So, basically, if you're a teacher, and a student makes a public challenge that's wrong, you're in a pickle. Fail to correct him, and you lose confidence. Correct him, and you risk losing empathy. Either way, your ethos is likely to suffer.

The only reliable way, in fact, for a teacher to come out fine when a student issues a challenge is for the student to actually be right. If the student is right, and I acknowledge it, the class becomes more open, more suitable for learning. I wish it happened more often.

But whenever I hear a confident, assertive challenge in a classroom, and I know (or suspect) the student's off-track, I cringe inside. If you ever see this happen, and see me pause, as though I'm trying to figure out how to handle it, the most likely reason for my hesitation is that the student involved is incorrect, and I'm now trying to figure out how to rescue both himself and myself at the same time, in full view of the class. It's not as easy as you'd hope.


1 Telling the class that Jane is right, when she's actually wrong, isn't an option. It's lying, and, even if you think "it's a white lie," those are bad for ethos too.

Unholy Trinity

Samantha Rose writes in her blog about how she’s irked by the fact that people round everything off to the nearest multiple of 5.

I'm with her on the number 5. She’s not insane. Perhaps 1 minute, 14 seconds is precisely the best time setting for that frozen burrito. There's nothing magical about the number 5, except that we like symmetry, and we like things to match our numbers of fingers and toes on each limb.

But there's another number that's given this sort of special treatment, for no good reason at all, and if you teach writing (like I do), it really starts to nag at you: There is nothing magical about the number three.

Nevertheless -- and this is particularly true when I teach business writing classes -- everything in a paper seems to come in sets of three: I get three reasons, of course, but also three parts to a plan, three bullet points, three key facts, three verbs ("We will create, distribute, and implement a plan to increase revenue"), three verbs and three nouns ("We will create, distribute, and implement a plan to increase revenue, marketability, and productivity"), and so forth.

The abuse of three is rampant. For this reason, I am overjoyed (at least for a second or two) when I get papers that say things like "there are two chief reasons" or "I will compare four possible solutions," simply because they indicate the author is not possessed by what I have come to think of as the “unholy trinity.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let There Be Illumination

Walking through the supermarket today, I spied the Jan. 12 cover of Time Magazine, which depicts a sweater-wearing person with a compact fluorescent bulb for a head. Think Edward Scissorhands, but ... er, brighter. Alongside the sweater-wearing bulb is the following teaser text: "Why We Need to See the Light about Energy Efficiency."

I didn't have the cash to buy the mag, so I left it on the stands. But since leaving the store, I've been thinking about that CFL bulb, which has come to symbolize for me a kind of blindness in policy-making. It's a relatively new blindness, and those afflicted with it tend not to realize it: We have a tendency to ignore the ways that policies affect people who have (or plan to have) children. We tend, moreover, not to think about pregnant women.

Allow me to elaborate, using the CFL as an example. There's been a push over the past few years to phase out old bulbs and make the CFLs mandatory, the rationale being that CFLs consume far less energy than "normal" (incandescent) bulbs do. Because they consume so little energy, power plants don't have to burn as much carbon-dioxide-producing fuel as they used to. In short, CFLs cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases. If everyone switches to CFLs, we can save a lot of energy, use less fossil fuel, and help fight global warming. That, in short, is the logic behind the CFL, and it's doubtless why Time Magazine chose to use one as a mascot on its energy awareness cover.

But there is a problem with the CFL: It contains a little bit of mercury, about enough to cover the tip of a pencil. That doesn't sound like much, but you wouldn't want to inhale that much nerve gas, and mercury is -- in fact -- a neurotoxin. Some forms of mercury are very lethal -- you wouldn't want to touch a drop, even with rubber gloves. The mercury in the light bulbs isn't nearly that nasty, but it is nevertheless the subject of some debate. People argue over whether the bulbs should have warning labels, over how to properly dispose of a dead CFL bulb, over whether the bulbs will leak mercury into water systems if they are introduced to landfills, and similar issues.

Here's the issue that concerns me the most, when it comes to these "green" bulbs: You absolutely do not want one in your house if you have children, or if there's a pregnant woman living there. Bulbs break in homes with children. Lots of things break. Bulbs are simply one of them, and it's a fact of life. And broken CFLs don't mix well with little kids: Even in small doses, inhaled mercury can retard brain development in growing minds, and is particularly harmful to fetuses and to children under the age of 6. (See also here.)

I learned the above stuff the hard way: Early this summer, about a week after my wife and I learned she was pregnant, one of those bulbs broke in our house -- a lamp using the bulb toppled onto my wife's desk and computer area. I knew women are supposed to avoid fish because of possible mercury content, so I kept her away from the desk while I struggled with the clean up.

And that clean-up was a struggle. Following official federal and state instructions on health-related Web sites like the EPA's and guidelines from a study conducted by the state of Maine, I ventilated the area by opening windows; I threw out most of the stuff that the glass had come in contact with; I cut away a large swath of carpet, rolled it up and disposed of it. I wore gloves. I took off my wedding ring (because gold attracts mercury). I even shaved off my goatee, because dust had flown up into my face while I was cutting out the carpet in the affected area. I kept my wife out of that room for about three weeks, and tried to keep my four-year-old son out of there, too, though that was tougher.

That was all for one bulb, and if it seems like an overreaction, you should have seen our ob/gyn's reaction to the news about the bulb and the fact it contains mercury: She told me my wife should find another place to live for the duration of the pregnancy. My reaction was comparatively subdued.

One of the things that frustrated me most about this incident is that if you look on official, government and environmentalist pages about CFLs, they tend to talk about how wonderful they are and how we should switch to them. Yet they say that if the bulbs break, we should take all of the above precautions. Many of them recommend that we "Get pregnant women and children out of the area during the clean-up."

But it never seems to occur to the authors on any of these sites -- or to legislators who are behind the drive to make these bulbs mandatory -- that some women are single parents. Some mothers don't have other homes to move into. Some have husbands who are away so often that the wives are likely to be the ones dealing with the clean-ups. And some, it must be remembered, don't yet know they're pregnant. And it's precisely at that time, when the fetus is so new that even the mother doesn't know it's there, that mercury exposure can have the most severe side effects.

Even in their rebuttals to CFL concerns, advocates tend not to think about families, or to take them very seriously. For instance, one defense of the CFL argues that the amount of mercury in my bulb at home is miniscule compared with the amount of mercury a powerplant puts into the air. This is true, but it also completely overlooks the reason that parents are worried about the lightbulbs: It's not the total amount of mercury released globally but rather the magnitude of the local dosage that matters -- I can step outside and breathe just fine, and not worry about the amount of mercury the power plants are emitting because that amount has spread itself so thin it's become negligible, but when a bulb breaks in my home, I now have 25,000 or more nanograms of mercury in a single room, and the accepted safety limit is 300 nanograms. If I'm thinking about what my children are breathing while they're bouncing on the couch, I'm far more worried about what broke on the carpet next to them, inside a closed room, than I am about a power plant 30 miles away. The global perspective, though accurate, does nothing to alleviate my concerns as a parent.

Meanwhile, I've heard a few CFL advocates suggest that when we install our CFLs, we should just get rid of our carpets. It's a simple matter: Just get rid of the carpets, and then you don't have to worry about little bits of mercury getting stuck in them, evaporating every time you vacuum. It's easier to clean a wood floor than it is to clean a carpet.

Sure. All of that is true. I vastly prefer wood floors to carpets anyway. However, and at the risk of sounding repetitive ... I have children. Children crawl. It's a natural thing. Most people remember that. Ever try to crawl on wood flooring, or hard tile? Children also fall. A lot. Ever fall on tile or hard flooring? Families have carpets and rugs for a reason. And we're going to keep that carpeting until they move out, even if it means cleaning gum and chocolate out of the rug fibers every week. (See Footnote 1.)

It seems to me that the very people most inclined to push environmentally-oriented policies must not have children in their homes. Instead, they have this huge blind spot: It simply doesn't occur to them that

1) bulbs might break;
2) there might be pregnant women or small children in the breakage area; and
3) that the very home that has children is also likely to have carpets.

Perhaps the supporters of such policies don't believe in children, and think anyone who has one is irresponsible. Perhaps they had children long ago, and those children are no longer in the house. Maybe they simply don't want to be parents. Whatever the case, when they start talking about what we ought to do, they have a weird tendency to ignore the fact that families full of rugrats exist, and that's unfortunate, because those families are likely to remain blind themselves to the risks behind things like CFLs. The talking heads will say CFLs are good, so parents will buy them. When the bulbs break, parents will cheerfully sweep them up, vacuum the carpet (unaware of the EPA's advice against it), and then let the kids keep playing. Years later, when the kids have trouble doing math, staying focused, falling asleep, or keeping their hands from trembling, they'll see a therapist instead of a toxicologist.

And that's a nasty combination: If the supporters act as though there are no children, and the parents act as though there are no risks, we might very well -- in trying to save the planet -- create a new public health disaster on the order of thalidomide. I hope that's not the case, sincerely. But I do worry about it at times.

- GS


(1) There also seems to be a bias in favor of homeowners in the lightbulb discussions: If you're renting an apartment, you can't just cut out your carpet. Well, I suppose you could, but there will be complications later...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mixed Signals

A few years ago, after becoming increasingly frustrated with the cable company, my wife and I decided to go with satellite. Now we have more channels than we'd ever watch, and some of the ones I'd never heard of are fairly entertaining, not so much due to their content, but because I'm intrigued that someone would go through the effort to create them -- and that (apparently), enough other people would watch them to comprise a decent market.

There's a research channel, for instance. It shows college lectures. Lots of them. I've watched a presentation by a political communications professor, one by a Nobel-Prize winning astronomer, and a few others that were good for curing insomnia. I don't remember what they said, but I do remember that I need to reupholster my chair, which is the thing that finally woke me up.

But perhaps the most intriguing channel to me right now is a high-definition movie channel -- the name of which escapes me, since on the menu it appears only as a string of five letters, acronym-style -- that plays old films in true HD. That's a pretty neat thing, because some of these films (like James Bond movies) are the sort you really want to lose yourself in, and it's easier to lose yourself if you can tell what the threadcount is on the sheets of Bond's bed.

So it's great, in that you can immerse yourself in the HD scenes -- right up to the commercial breaks. And that's the part that intrigues me: The channel also has commercials. See, to my thinking, an HD movie and a commercial break are philosophically at odds with each other. One immerses, and the other interrupts. It's great to be able to see the rifling on the bullets being fired in a film, but not so great to be able to count chancres on a Girls Gone Wild ad, or see up Billy May's maw well enough to know he needs work on his third, upper-right molar. That sort of thing can derail a mind for life.

I was excited when I first found the channel, but not so thrilled at the ads, not because I'm philosophically against ads -- heck, I have a child, and need the break so I can make him sandwiches -- but because the combination makes so little sense. A paid subscription channel would make sense, but HD films don't mix well with Billy Mays.

Come to think of it, very little does.


It's tough to find a name that isn't taken, these days. Tougher still to find one that is free, and that you like. Many clever little two-word combinations that I'd thought of ages ago, and which used to be -- near as I knew -- unique to my brain have since occurred to other brains, and other people have now claimed real estate on the World Wide Web using those phrases.

So I went with an extinct animal that I happen to find interesting. You can look it up. Hemicyon was a dog-bear -- a hunting, hypercarnivorous, pack animal that roamed the plains of the Northern Hemisphere way back during the Miocene. The body was powerful like a bear, sleek and fast like a dog, and in behavior might be thought of as a velociraptor with fur. You would not have wanted to stumble across a hungry pack and have them see you as dinner.

What does this choice symbolize? What is its secret meaning? I don't have one. It was a cool animal, and the name was available. So I went with it. Maybe I'll think of a message for it later, but right now, it's a nearly random name pick. That's not such a strange thing to do. Parents do it all the time: Pick names for babies, with no idea what they mean, or not really caring. My name is Graham, which means "gray homestead." (That's why I go by "Gray" for short.) My son's name is Ronan, which is Irish, and means "baby seal." When we picked the name for my kid, my wife and picked it because it sounded neat, and we didn't know anyone else who had it. We didn't attach any importance to the baby seal thing. And I'm pretty sure my parents didn't mean much when they basically called me a house. Frequently, names are just names, and it's not a good idea to read too much into them.