Archive for the ‘Academics’ Category

Service of Keep it Short: Economists Resist the Trend

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662. Photo: en.wikipedia.org

We’d all do well to heed Blaise Pascal’s apology: “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” It might be among the first well known quotes to recognize the benefits of taking the time to self-edit. I’m horrified at some of my first drafts bloated with superfluous words and appreciate it if I have time to revise.

Ben Leubsdorf made it clear that many academics in the economics world haven’t received Pascal’s message. Until recently they haven’t recognized the trend to share sometimes life-changing information in increasingly reduced sizes. Think social media.

Leubdorf wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The average length of a published economics paper has more than tripled over the past four decades, and some academics are sick of wading through them.”

Photo: nature.com

He quoted MIT professor David Autor who launched a [lengthy] Twitter hashtag, #ThePaperIsTooDamnedLong, inspired by a working paper about minimum wage. He compared wading through the 94-pager to “being bludgeoned to death with a Nerf bat.”

The American Economics Association [AEA] “announced last year it would launch a journal dedicated to publishing only concise papers, at least by economists’ standards—nothing longer than 6,000 words, or about 15 double-spaced pages.” But that’s not expected to happen until next summer. One economist predicted that this approach might attract 600+ papers the first year.

That was Amy Finkelstein of MIT. She told Leubsdorf that significant papers written in the1950s by future Nobel Prize winners Paul Samuelson and John Nash covered public good and game theories in just a few pages. “Some journals today seem wary of publishing such quick reads.” In 50 years the top five academic journals covering economics upped average paper size from 16 to 50 according to a University of California, Berkeley analysis.

Paul Samuelson Photo: nobelprize.org

“It isn’t unusual for economists to include a number of statistical checks to confirm each finding’s validity, similar points made with several different data sets, lengthy reviews of past research, multiple appendices with technical details and page after page of Greek letter-laden formulas that require, well, a Ph.D. to understand.”

Katharine Anderson told Leubsdorf that the time it takes to write and read/review a lengthy paper becomes a huge commitment. The Carnegie Mellon University economist explained that these papers must make/prove many different points while academic papers in other specialties need make only one or two. Boston University’s Samuel Bazzi said that these papers include redundancies “to head off possible quibbles that might come up during the review process.”

Do you think briefer academic papers in a specialty such as economics will positively impact the quality of research or at least the dissemination of information? How is it that eminent economists in the 1950s could make their points—and win Nobel Prizes—reporting breakthroughs in 16 pages while today some need 50+? Do the blinders to essential changes in communications by this community reflect on their abilities to forecast?

Photo: economcsdiscussion.net

Service of Everybody Gets a Trophy: College & University Academic Honors Galore

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Photo: debate.org

Not short of recognition in my professional life, in college I was a dorm officer and on the college student council but I wasn’t much when it came to academic honors. [I made Dean’s List one semester, a shock to me most of all.] I’m impressed with my Phi Beta Kappa friends and with anyone who graduated with academic honors.

Photo: rochester.edu

I was not happy to read Melissa Korn’s Wall Street Journal article, “You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else.”

Korn wrote: “Nearly half of students who graduated from Lehigh University, Princeton University and the University of Southern California this year did so with cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude honors, or their equivalents. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, more got the designations than didn’t.” Over 50 percent of Middlebury’s graduates and at Wellesley, 41 percent were so honored, up from 1/3 in the past 10 years.

Korn quoted former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer: “A 4.0 does signal something significant, that that student is good. A 3.7, however, doesn’t. That’s just a run-of-the-mill student at any of these schools.” Rojstaczer has focused on grade inflation for years according to Korn.

“Most elite schools cap the share of the graduating class that can receive academic honors. But the caps vary widely, from 25% at Columbia University to up to 60% at Harvard,” she wrote.

Excerpts from the article:

  • “Harvard’s number hit 91% in 2001, as highlighted at the time in a Boston Globe article about generous honors policies. Soon after, the school revised its selection process.
  • “Academic researchers say that uptick is a sign of grade inflation, not of smarter students.
  • “A handful of schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have tried to rein in the awards.
  • “Derrick Bolton, dean of admissions for Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars graduate program, said application readers may glance at honors designations, but don’t dwell on them.” The program that accepted 50 and rejected 3,451 students, “looks more for candidates who challenge themselves academically, even if that means a B grade along the way.”

To be eligible for academic recognition the GPAs required by the colleges and universities in the article started at 3.5 and 3.6. At Tufts, which wouldn’t share with the Journal the percentage of students awarded academic honors, you needed a 3.2 in engineering.

Harvey Mudd College

If someone is paying yearly almost $70,000–$52,666 tuition and $17,051 room and board–at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif., they might expect an award, don’t you think? Harvey Mudd was the first in a list of the 50 most expensive colleges and universities in Business Insider published in February 2017.  The publication credited “Trends in College Pricing” as its source. Brown was the least expensive charging $64,566 for tuition and room and board. I went to Boston University, number 38, now at $65,110 per year, whereas Yale, number 47, where my husband graduated, cost $64,650.

Do colleges and universities think that they are doing students a favor by lowering the bar in handing out academic honors by the pound? Are they being smart? Is the likely chance a student or child will be so honored a selling point to attract candidates?

Photo: dentaltechnicianjobs.net

Service of Boring Academicians

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Professor 2

Wall Street Journal columnist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely answered the query of reader Rachel who among her questions asked: “How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?”

Professor 3Ariely’s reply was a bit longer than this, but the crux: “…..when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ We all suffer from this affliction, but it is particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.”

What happened to “know your audience and speak/write accordingly?” Letting academics off the hook like this smacks of condoning laziness with a dash of arrogance and a pinch of smugness. Either that or it translates to “don’t invite academics to speak with anyone outside their specialty,” which would be a shame.

Sometimes it’s the listener’s fault, not the speaker’s. Perhaps they don’t relate. I wasn’t in college long before I discovered what’s obvious: A professor who is dry as burnt toast to some is a fascinating lecturer to others. We all have our Dr. Blackwell. He was a typical absent minded professor who walked into walls, was awkward and long-winded and drove most of my classmates nuts. I found his words riveting and his clumsy ways charming.

Leon Botstein 2You can fill a thimble with what I know about music and yet I understand what the president of Bard College, Dr. Leon Botstein—also a conductor and scholar—says when he lectures an audience at one of his concerts. No doubt he covers different ground in a class of musicians. Botstein, [photo left], an academician if ever there was one, was president of a now-defunct college at 23 and joined Bard in this role before he was 30. He’s now 68.

Do you think that Ariely lets academics off too easily or do you agree with him—that they are what they are, live with it, amen. Do academicians feel pride in not being understood?

Professor 1

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