I’m on my way to #scio14

That’s not good news. The good news will be “I’m at #scio14“, because I’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of me. And it’s been one of those days that I always dread: the day I have to return tests in genetics. I write hard tests…well, not really that hard conceptually, but I avoid questions of a form that allows them to be answered with rote execution of a formula, which means that students who are struggling to understand often end up taking weird detours in their answers, and do poorly. And then there’s the usual bimodal grade distribution of a class that emphasizes logic and methodology; some find it trivial, others just freak out. Everyone is miserable, and it makes lecturing no fun at all.

But I can’t do otherwise. I’ll throw more practice problems at them, and drill them through the process over and over again, and usually, most of them will make it through to the end.

Anyway, now I’m off to the airport. Long drive, long night, get into Raleigh-Durham sometime tomorrow. Then I have to be the student for a few days and learn.

I hope there isn’t an exam at the end.

Everything you need to know about Bob Jones University

They intentionally turn a blind eye to their sins.

For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

But wait! Then they hired a Christian consulting group to independently help them grapple with the problem. That’s a step in the right direction.

But wait again! Now they’ve fired their consultants, because they were going beyond the originally outlined intentions, that is, they were coming up with criticisms and answers they didn’t like.

This is how BJU handles assault complaints.

Erin Burchwell said that when she accused a university employee of sexually assaulting her in the late 1990s, “their idea of an investigation and counseling was to ask me what I was wearing and whether it was tight, and to tell me not to talk to anyone about it because it wouldn’t look good for me.” She said university officials alternated between “saying it never even happened and saying I was a willing participant.”

I doubt that I have many readers among the student body at BJU, but in case there are any, here’s my advice: get out while you can. Transfer to a real college.

Education in Texas: yet another exposé

Zack Kopplin has a very thorough exposé of the Responsive Ed charter schools in Texas. Charter schools are an alternative to the standard public school system, but they receive public funding, your tax dollars, and are therefore required to follow the same legal strictures as all public schools. And that means no religious indoctrination.

The Responsive Ed schools are simply yet another manifestation of the creationist ideal: they teach creationism flat out, and they also mislead and cast false doubts on evolutionary science. They also use the Christian bible as a source.

Outright creationism appears in Responsive Ed’s section on the origins of life. It’s not subtle. The opening line of the workbook section, just as the opening line of the Bible, declares, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

There’s the usual ignorance of how science works, too.

Another Responsive Ed section claims that evolution cannot be tested, something biologists have been doing for decades. It misinforms students by claiming, “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”

The Texas legislature ought to be sitting up in alarm at these gross illegalities…but as it turns out, state senator Dan Patrick, chair of the Texas Senate Education Committee, is also promoting Responsive Ed. Sorry, Texas, you’re doomed. As long as you keep electing these assnuggets to run your educational system, you’re not going to have competent education.

It’s not just evolution, either. Kopplin lists all the lies that are taught about history, other countries, feminism, stem cells, gay rights, sex ed, you name it.

Texas: screwing over another generation. Thanks, guys.

War on Everything

We’ve just begun a temporary cease fire in the War on Christmas (have no fear, Bill O’Reilly will start firing salvos of hot air again next October), which was a ridiculous contrivance: atheists aren’t fighting against Christmas, we’re just here. We’ve also lately seen that the Republican party is becoming increasingly creationist — they’re signing up for a War on Evolution. What’s really going on, as Charles Blow explains, is that the fanatical right has found the war metaphor a useful tool for rallying idiots.

But I believe that something else is also at play here, something more cynical. I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.

They need a War on Something to feel commitment, whether it’s a War on Terror or a War on White People or whatever. The important things are that 1) it has to be a war on an abstraction, so there isn’t actually any risk of sacrifice, 2) the promoters of this “war” hasten to reassure everyone that they are going to battle to pander to The People, and 3) The People are eager to reciprocate by affirming their support for the promoters. It’s a good game.

Now the latest: there is a War on Shakespeare, announced on the incredibly credible pages of the Wall Street Journal opinion section, where reason always goes to die.

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the "Empire," UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

It’ll be interesting to see if this one gets any traction. The People would rather not read Shakespeare — only out-of-touch liberal elitist academics who attend the MLA do that — but I suspect that won’t matter. They don’t have any real commitment to Christianity, either, but nothing will rile ’em up more than criticizing religion, so I can imagine them happily putting some old Elizabethan dude on a banner and waving it. It also has the virtue of being a totally imaginary war, just the way they like it.

For a good corrective, just read this article on what the UCLA English department actually did. They still teach Shakespeare — I imagine that there are many faculty who actually like Shakespeare.

Never mind that UCLA probably got rid of the three single-author course requirements because single-author courses are tough to teach, and can be murder to take (guess what? Not everybody likes Chaucer enough to spend 15 weeks on him, and that’s OK). Never mind that the UCLA English major still requires plenty of historical literature classes, including Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. Never mind that students don’t actually have to take a gender or race studies course, as they’re two of several options for fulfilling the breadth requirement. Those are but irrelevant facts, but since said facts involve giving students a choice to take a course on Queer Literature since 1855 (Tennessee Williams? James Baldwin? Gertrude Stein? Oh no!), they surely herald the continuing descent into Gomorrah.

It might still play with the crowds, though. Gays and women and blacks replacing white English guy? As good an excuse for an apocalypse as any.

Sikivu tells it like it is

She tears into a phenomenon that bothers me, too: white evangelical ministers jumping ship for atheism, being embraced by atheists, and tainting atheism with the Christian culture. In particular, there’s this awful parasite, Ryan Bell, who’s only just trying out atheism for a year, which is simply ridiculous — it’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset. What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?

A thriving brand of secular tourism can now be definitively filed under the category “stuff white people like”:  Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has sponsored a crowd-funding campaign for a white male former pastor named Ryan Bell who—in a bit of brilliant PR stagecraft—“decided to…give atheism a try” for a year.  As a result of his “experiment” Bell was fired from two Christian schools.  Currently the campaign has far exceeded its $5,000 goal, generating over $16,000 from 700 plus donors in one day.  Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the “maverick ex-pastor” bandwagon. 

But there’s more to it than that. American culture as a whole tends to be racist, and atheists are following the majority.

In studies conducted by Princeton University researchers, white job seekers with criminal records were slightly more likely to be called back for and/or offered entry-level jobs than African American job seekers with no criminal record. According to lead researcher Devah Pager, “Even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%). The rank ordering of (these) groups…is painfully revealing of employer preferences: race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities, equal to or greater than the impact of a criminal record.”

That’s the problem: that racism cuts people off at the level of denying them opportunities, so they don’t get a chance to demonstrate competence, providing a self-perpetuating basis for the myth that they’re less qualified. It’ll never end unless everyone consciously opens the doors and encourages more participation; unless we recognize the handicap that assumed white dominance places on all others who have slightly more melanin.

She also points out one egregious example of failure by atheist organizations:

For example, although many atheists profess a commitment to ‘science and reason’ there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.” While white atheists give jobs, “atheist” pulpits and big bucks to American secular tourists numerous black churches support STEM tutoring, mentoring, college access and scholarship programs to confront the gaping educational divide between white and black America.

There are, unfortunately, a substantial number of atheists who declare that anything beyond simply stating there is no god is ‘mission creep’. They can cheer when a prominent scientist like Richard Dawkins endorses atheism, but recognizing that a commitment to science means a heck of a lot more than clapping really hard at a talk is too much for them. They like science, and isn’t atheism supposed to be just about affirming what they already like? Oh, and of course, affirming how stupid people are who don’t like the things we do.

But taking that next step and realizing that a commitment to science means investing and working towards expanding knowledge of science is hard. Exercising political will is hard. Demanding social change is hard. But that’s what atheists need to do if they are to be something more than an empty label.

I’ve been seeing first-hand what it takes to expand an idea, and atheism isn’t doing it. Science is. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people at HHMI and NIH, and their focus is crystal clear. They prioritize getting science done, and they don’t give a damn whether it is a white hand or a brown one doing it.

The demographic trends are perfectly obvious: America is going to become a majority-minority country in the next few decades (states like California and Texas are already there), which means white people aren’t going to be the dominant default anymore. At the same time, when these grant agencies look at who is doing science, they’re mostly white and minority populations are largely excluded. They can do the math, they’re scientists. It means we can’t afford to discriminate against the largest subpopulation as a pool of potential scientists.

So there are programs in place at all the big science funding agencies to encourage an expansion of that pool, before the trends kill us. Even my little HHMI grant is designed with the goal of giving underserved populations a chance to do science at the undergraduate level.* These represent commitments of money and time to give those who are denied by default assumptions an opportunity to prove themselves. That’s what we need more of, not just lip service.

I know all the major atheist organizations either have a narrower goal, or are making major efforts to grow the atheist community. If your goal is to just grow your membership, it’s always tempting to just focus on the people you’ve already got, and just try to get more. But grabbing a greater share of a shrinking subpopulation is short-term thinking. Long term, you have to invest in recruiting from the faster-growing subset — and the atheist organizations that are still going to be here in the future need to make that commitment now.

*By the way, women are not considered an underserved population in undergraduate education any more. We have no problem getting women involved in entry-level science — the problems come later for women, when it’s time for promotion and moving on to professional status. That’s a ceiling minorities hit as well; these are problems that have to be addressed at multiple levels.

I could have used this last semester

I’m on a search committee for a tenure track position in statistics and computer science — we’re looking for someone to teach a data science course, maybe a little bioinformatics on the side, and work with both our statistics and computer science disciplines. I’m the outside member of the committee — you know, the weirdo who isn’t steeped deeply in the culture of the disciplines and maybe is better able to provide the big picture perspective on how candidates will fit with the rest of the university — so I know next to nothing about this stuff. My eyes were crossing and my brain was breaking as I reviewed candidate applications. What I really needed was this bingo card. I think I saw all of those terms fly by as I was flipping through CVs and research and teaching statements.

Don’t worry, I deferred to the expertise of my colleagues on all matters dealing with the details of their work.

It’s always interesting, though, to peek into the domains outside my own, and feel a little humbled at all the stuff I don’t know.

She must be the Queen of Science

I just finished grading the exam I gave yesterday in cell biology. Every year, in one of my biology core classes, I slip in a common bonus question. This question is free points — all the students have to do is give me any answer, and I give them credit for it. The question is:

Name a woman scientist, in any discipline. What did she do?

Easy, right? And every year, the same person tops the list.

Scientist Number Percent
Marie Curie 21 44.7%
UMM Chemistry Faculty 7 14.9%
UMM Biology Faculty 5 10.6%
Rosalind Franklin 5 10.6%
Other Scientist 8 17.0%
none 1 2.1%

Other scientists included Jane Goodall, Martha Chase, Caroline Herschel, and my favorite, Mom — Chase, Herschel, and Franklin were all mentioned in my lectures. Marie Curie is not. One person neglected to give any answer (free points! You passed up free points!). Two people named Marie Curie, but had no idea what she had done.

The one interesting change I’ve noticed over the years is that despite her absurd lead, Marie Curie has been steadily dropping, and the students are increasingly aware that there are women teaching science in their other classes — and also, I’m happy to report, the ones who mentioned my fellow faculty are actually aware of what they do for research. Chemistry probably leads biology because these students have a full year of general chemistry before they take this course and are concurrently taking organic chemistry.

Next year, I plan to take the big step and ask how many can name a minority scientist — I’m kind of afraid that most of them will be totally stumped, because I really don’t pull out a big flag when I talk about these scientists, waving it and announcing “Hey! This person is a WOMAN! (or black, or Hispanic, or whatever)” during lecture. It’ll be interesting to see if the students are even aware that the other faculty person teaching half the sections of cell biology is native American…

The dumbifying of Christianity

Jonny Scaramanga has posted a sampling of quiz questions from Accelerated Christian Education. Take a look, and ask yourself, “Am I smarter than a fundamentalist Christian taught from a home-school curriculum developed by fanatics in Texas?”

You will be reassured by the fact that yes, you are. Much smarter. Although after reading the questions, you might be a little less smart than you were five minutes before.

You’ll need all your smarts when you face the truly terrifying question: who thinks the ACE curriculum is an acceptable educational standard for the 21st century?

In the United Kingdom, UK NARIC has deemed qualifications based on ACE to be comparable to A-level. Ofsted routinely whitewashes ACE schools in reports, and ACE nurseries teaching creationism receive government funding.

In New Zealand, ACE qualifications are accepted for university entrance.

In the USA, ACE’s Lighthouse Christian Academy is accredited by MSA-CESS. The curriculum is used in givernment-funded creationist voucher programs in eleven states.

In South Africa, based on HESA’s recommendation, a number of universities have signed up to accept ACE graduates.

ACE says its curriculum is used in 192 countries and 6000 schools worldwide. This is happening nearer than you think.

They want to dumbify everybody.

We should not talk about racism

I know, the Republicans have declared that racism is over, but we all read that wrong. What they really want to do is declare that talking about racism is over. We all know that the Republican Party is the most racist party in the country — they actually depend on fomenting racist attitudes to get elected nowadays — so they have a vested interest in getting us to shut up about racism in the US.

That way we wouldn’t notice events like this: three high school kids waiting for a bus their coach arranged to take them to basketball practice get arrested. For loitering and obstructing the sidewalk. Wait, waiting is what you’re expected to do at a bus stop, right? Yes, but waiting while black is apparently a crime in Rochester, New York.

Three boys (l-r) Daequon Carelock, Wan'Tauhjs Weathers and Raliek Redd were arrested in Rochester while waiting for bus to basketball scrimmage

Three boys (l-r) Daequon Carelock, Wan’Tauhjs Weathers and Raliek Redd were arrested in Rochester while waiting for bus to basketball scrimmage

I’m sure the cops were confirmed in their righteous efforts to keep riff-raff off the streets as soon as they heard those names: Daequon, Wan’Tauhjs, and Raliek. I wonder if the kid on the right was actually wearing a hoody while waiting for the bus? So many racial signifiers, so many justifications for arrest. You want evidence for structural racism in America? There it is.

And here’s another example: white people resisting attempts to even teach them about racism. At Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Shannon Gibney was teaching about structural racism in a communications class — it’s a rather important topic and appropriate to the subject — when students complained.

[One of the white students asked,] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ I was shocked… It was not in a calm way. His whole demeanor was very defensive. He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner — as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class — that this is unfortunately the context of 21st century America.

Another white male student said, ‘Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?’

I tried to say, ‘You guys are trying to take it personally. This is not a personal attack. We’re not all white people, you white people in general. We’re talking about whiteness as a system of oppression.’

And so I’m quite familiar, unfortunately, with how that works — and how the institutional structures and powers reinforce this white male supremacy, basically, and that sort of narrative, and way of seeing the world.

And so I said, ‘You know, if you’re really upset, feel free to go down to legal affairs and file a racial harassment discrimination complaint.’

“Why do we have to talk about this.” That’s like the common whine of every entitled, selfish, child of privilege: do not question my right to have all the things, do not challenge my status, do not ask me to look down and notice all the people I’m trampling, do not ask me to recognize the oppressed as human beings. It was entirely right of her to inform them that they could go complain to the administration, and it is entirely right that they did so.

Two white guys complaining that their teacher was teaching them about racism? You might think that it’s a foregone conclusion that Minneapolis Community and Technical College would dismiss that concern pretty quickly. You’d be wrong. Structural racism, remember?

The vice president of student affairs at MCTC filed a formal reprimand of Shannon Gibney. Against a black teacher teaching a class about racism!

“I definitely feel like I’m a target in the class. I don’t feel like students respect me,” she continued. “Those students were trying to undermine my authority from the get-go. And I told the lawyer at the investigatory meeting, ‘You have helped those three white male students succeed in undermining my authority as one of the few remaining black female professors here.'”

MCTC doesn’t have to worry. Word will get around that the school is only for white folks, and their student body and faculty will get whiter and whiter, and conflict will be minimized, and the white men will be affirmed in their smug privilege, and all will be well as long as we don’t look down.

We’ve got a few of the same smug people at UMM, but at least our administration doesn’t support them. But even here, the magic word “diversity” can be used to mask inaction and even direct discussion of the problem. Talking about racism is over. Continuing to demand discussion about it is grounds for a reprimand.

If teachers are welfare queens, then social theorists at Ivy League colleges must be world-class parasites

I saw this title on an article by Randall Collins and my hackles rose, my eyes turned red, I started to sprout hair everywhere as I growled and slavered. I will have blood.

Millennials, rise up! College is a scam — you have nothing to lose but student debt

Students chase degree after degree, adding crushing debt, as jobs vanish. It is time to radically rethink college

Now wait, I said to myself as I tried to suppress the change, titles are written by editors, and sometimes reflect the content poorly — they are trying to get a rise out of you, so you’ll read what follows. Maybe it’s not so bad. Give the guy a chance. So I read on.

Credential inflation is the rise in educational requirements for jobs as a rising proportion of the population attains more advanced degrees. The value of a given educational certificate or diploma declines as more people have one, thereby motivating them to stay in school longer. In the United States, high-school (i.e., twelve-year secondary school) diplomas were comparatively rare before World War II; now high-school degrees are so commonplace that their job value is worthless.

Job…value? JOB VALUE? We have a more educated citizenry (not educated enough, I would say, looking sideways at the Tea Party), and this bozo is complaining that their value is less because so many have reached a minimal educational standard? The US has a literacy rate of approximately 99% — what a disgrace. What is the point of teaching people to read if it doesn’t give them an edge over a vast illiterate mob? Think what a great advantage it would give you if you were one of the only 1% who could add and subtract — you’d have great job security, and your market value would be phenomenal! Afghanistan, with it’s overall literacy rate of 28%, should be regarded as an ideal.

In light of this wonderfully blinkered perspective on education, I am radically rethinking college myself. Maybe we need institutions of ignorance to slap down millions of minds just to keep the economic value of my degrees high…because, after all, the only reason I do what I do is for my personal gain, with never a thought about making society better or helping other individuals.

Oh, wait. I forgot. We do have such institutions of ignorance: they’re called churches. I am beginning to see their place in the ecosystem of culture.

This attitude is taken for granted throughout the article, which sees all of education solely in a vocational light.

Educational degrees are a currency of social respectability, traded for access to jobs; like any currency, it inflates prices (or reduces purchasing power) when autonomously driven increases in monetary supply chase a limited stock of goods, in this case chasing an ever more contested pool of upper-middle-class jobs.

I know the universities promote this view already, advertising their role as one of granting access to the big bucks of a job after graduation. I hate it. Most faculty don’t think that way either — if we did, we sure as hell wouldn’t have used our ever-so-precious degrees to get jobs at relatively low paying places like colleges.

We are not handing out tickets to jobs. If you want that, go to a vocational college and learn a trade; this is an entirely respectable option and is often a very wise move. Go to college if you want to learn something about how the world works more deeply, or if you want to experience the unconventional and different and see a wider picture. Go to college because there’s something you love that you can’t pursue elsewhere precisely because it has no market value…but it means something to you as a human being. Poetry is not a path to riches, but in college you can find people who love it; there’s practically no economic value to thinking hard about ethics, but at a college you’ll not only find people who live for ethical issues, but will teach you what they know and ask you hard questions to make you think more about it too. Why learn about history, or dead languages, or exotically impractical bits of abstract mathematics, or putter about making art? Because it will make you wealthy? Hell, no. Because you’ve only got one life to live and you ought to use it to make yourself wiser and happier, and if learning about those weird and strangely human subjects is what you want to do, do it.

There are things we need to fix in our educational system, I would agree. But the very last people you should consult on how to fix it are those who so poorly understand the meaning of the word “education” that they confuse it with a certification in a task. Randall Collins is clearly such a benighted ignoramus that I could feel my urge to howl at the moon declining…until…


Although educational credential inflation expands on false premises— the ideology that more education will produce more equality of opportunity, more high-tech economic performance, and more good jobs—it does provide some degree of solution to technological displacement of the middle class. Educational credential inflation helps absorb surplus labor by keeping more people out of the labor force; and if students receive a financial subsidy, either directly or in the form of low-cost (and ultimately unrepaid) loans, it acts as hidden transfer payments. In places where the welfare state is ideologically unpopular, the mythology of education supports a hidden welfare state. Add the millions of teachers in elementary, secondary, and higher education, and their administrative staffs, and the hidden Keynesianism of educational inflation may be said to virtually keep the capitalist economy afloat.

Aaaargh. The “mythology of education”? K-12 teachers are in sinecures, sucking up money to keep the economy afloat? Schools are a hidden welfare system for teachers who really aren’t otherwise contributing to the economy or society as a whole?

Fuck that. I’m wolfing out. GRRRRRRR.