New college students are independent adults. Respect that.

I remember when I went off to college. I enrolled at DePauw University, a liberal arts college in Indiana. All my life until then I’d lived only on the West coast; it was going to be my first flight on an airplane, too. My family supported my decision, helped me pack the one beat-up, shabby suitcase with about 50 pounds of stuff, and waved bye-bye as I boarded the jet at Sea-Tac. I still remember that I sat on the plane next to a school teacher from Brownsville who must have noticed that I looked rather lost, and he talked to me the whole way to reassure me that this was going to be a great adventure.

After I landed in Indianapolis, I had to find my way to Greencastle, and I had no idea where it was except that there was supposed to be a bus service that could take me there. I stumbled my way around, found the bus, eventually got delivered to the town, and this was what I saw.

Just picture a scrawny 18 year old standing there, hauling a massive battered suitcase held shut with a belt strapped around it, his arms aching, blisters on his hand, standing there alone with absolutely no clue about where to go. That was me. It was terrifying and thrilling all at the same time. I managed to drag my burdens across campus to the dorm (why did Bishop Roberts Hall have to be so far from the campus entrance?) and began my first year of living independently. I was a totally clueless nerd, but I managed and learned a lot.

So now I’m reading this article about a young student at Bristol University who killed himself in his first year, and I’m sympathetic — that first year is hugely stressful. I was doing new student registration just yesterday, and I saw students in tears because they’re suddenly facing new decisions — “Why do I have to take that class? Oh, no: this class I wanted to take is full! My life is over.” It is hard. Go ahead and cry, I’m not going to hold it against you, I’ve been there myself. But the solution in the article isn’t a good idea.

The father of a student who killed himself is calling for the relaxation of data protection rules that currently deter universities from alerting parents that their child has serious mental health problems.

Nope. I guess some parents just can’t let go, but you have to. The official, legal position of American universities is that we have to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which respects the privacy of the student — they are now independent adults. They can, of course, freely communicate whatever they want to their families. I did! I wrote letters every week or so back home, and this was in the 1970s, no email, long distance phone costs were absurd, and I had to write by hand (we didn’t have printers) on paper and send it by mail with a stamp and everything. But all of my interactions with students are confidential. They’re between the university and the student, even if the parents are paying tuition.

I put three kids through college. I never saw a single report card. I’d ask in a general way how things were going, but it was their choice how to answer me…and they always said “fine”, so I’m pretty sure there were dramas and anxieties and struggles they weren’t telling me about. That’s the way it goes. This ain’t kindergarten anymore — these are adults, taking their first steps forward. Let ’em go.

I occasionally get concerned parents who ask me what their student’s grades are in my class — I tell them no, ask them, not me. I’ve had parents show up at my office door, very worried about whether their student will graduate, and I tell them the same thing. In one case it was tough, because the student was actually blowing off all their courses, had dug themself a very deep hole, and was not going to graduate for sure…but that’s not their business. What can a parent do in such a situation? Yell at them? Cut off their funds? None of that helps solve the problem. I sent the student off to talk with advisors in our learning center instead.

But, you’re saying, this Bristol student killed himself. Yeah, and what is the parent going to do? I would assume they have been giving their unstinting love and support all this time, but the student is still struggling. They don’t need mom and dad, they need professional help. If I were informed by a parent or a peer or observed a student flailing, I wouldn’t call the parent: I’d call a counselor (we have trained experts in this sort of thing), or a dean or take it all the way up to the chancellor to get them help. Parents aren’t usually trained in clinical interventions.

Also, terrible as it is to say, some parents are the problem. I’ve seen everything from neglect and abuse to those high-pressure parents who are the ones applying the most strain to the students’ sense of self-worth and identity. I usually don’t know. I’m not going to contact someone who is a stranger to me and is unlikely to have the specialized skills to deal with, for instance, depression or an identity crisis. Yeah, like I should call a parent and say, “Your son has discovered he’s gay, thinks he’s going to hell, and just broke down in tears in my office. Could you come take him away?”

The father here blames the university. He thinks the cause of the suicide was a sense of failure because he didn’t get into his first choice university.

Murray believes that sudden change of plan and narrowly missing out on Edinburgh made his son vulnerable. “He loved Edinburgh. We had been there many times,” he said. “A sense of not succeeding becomes a sense of failure. I think that’s what Ben was carrying with him going to university. To take your own life you have to be in extraordinary mental pain.”

Ben told his family he was enjoying university, but they discovered after his death that he had struggled to engage with the course and had missed lectures and exams. Murray said his son had informed the university he was suffering from anxiety and he was sent a link to support services.

He killed himself a few days before he was due to leave Bristol at the end of a formal withdrawal process.

And there’s the problem. Ben Murray was in contact with his family, and chose to hide his problems from them. That was his choice. His father now wants the university to change their policies and inform the family of difficulties against the student’s desires. There may be a very good reason their son didn’t want to discuss these issues with his parents; if we go against the wishes of an adult student, unaware of the full situation, we could make the problems worse.

It is worth noting that Ben Murray was more willing to inform the university of the problems than he was his parents. That’s a decision that should be respected, and that we are obligated to respect, and he made that choice. You could make a case that the university should have done more — sending a link to support services is kind of impersonal — but the more appropriate response would have been to set him up with appointment with a trained counselor, not to go running to the people Murray was avoiding.

Rebecca Traister on Bill Clinton

I feel terrible that Al Franken had to resign. He was a good senator, one of the best, but it was all that other behavior that had to be clearly and unambiguously censured in the strongest terms. Any doubts I might have had were dispelled by Bill Clinton, of all people.

The interaction happened during an interview Clinton did, alongside Patterson, with the Today show’s Craig Melvin. Melvin kicked things off by asking Clinton about how his relationship with Lewinsky — consensual but nonetheless a clear abuse of professional and sexual power — had sullied recent reassessments of his presidency.

Clinton reared back, flustered. “We have a right to change the rules but we don’t have a right to change the facts,” he said, suggesting that Melvin didn’t know the facts of the Lewinsky case. Clinton claimed to “like the #MeToo movement; it’s way overdue.” But when Melvin pressed him on whether it had prompted him to rethink his own past behavior, like so many millions of other men and women around the world — including Lewinsky in a March Vanity Fair essay — he sputtered that of course he hadn’t, because he’d “felt terrible then.”

He spends a lot of time insisting that there are “facts” that the interviewer is glossing over, implying that they exonerate him. I think the only fact that matters is that he took advantage of a star-struck young intern in his office, a fact that he has admitted was true.There’s no getting around that. But he “felt terrible”. Gosh. About what? That he exploited this woman, or that he got caught?

“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House 16 million dollars in debt,” Clinton said, as if having paid a literal debt was the extent of the work to be done in the midst of a cultural and social reckoning. Then, as if he’d forgotten the rules of time and space and the evolution of progressive movements, Clinton kicked into full self-defense mode: “This was litigated 20 years ago … Two-thirds of the American people sided with me; I had a sexual-harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s; I had two women chiefs of staff when I was the governor; women were overrepresented in the attorneys general office in the ’70s.”

I will happily admit that Clinton was a better man for women’s rights than the Republican hypocrites who used his personal misdeeds to make him pay that price and to hound him relentlessly in office; shouldn’t Newt Gingrich be paying an even more savage price for his behavior? I agree that American political culture is a morass of double-standards, and that a Democrat faces higher standards for personal probity than Republicans. But what I want to see is recognition that he was wrong, an acknowledgement that he screwed up badly, rather than whining about how he was sorry and he paid the price.

I was getting exasperated with Clinton’s obstinacy about admitting a huge mistake, but then James Patterson, his ally, leapt in and delivered the coup de grâce.

Toward the end, James Patterson jumped in, perhaps hoping to assist his floundering co-author: “This thing was 20 years ago. Come on. Let’s talk about JFK. Let’s talk about LBJ. Stop already.” Clinton took the opportunity to angrily query Melvin: “You think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you think President Johnson should have resigned?”

Hmm. Well. When you put it that way…YES. You’re saying that there has been 60 years of deplorable behavior in the Oval Office while the American public mostly turns a blind eye, and the political parties actively shelter sexual predators? I hadn’t thought of it that way. But maybe if we’d told the American president in the 1960s that he doesn’t get to use the power of his office to go on pussy patrol, there would have been an example set that guys, you have to keep it in your pants. You have a job to do.

This isn’t an unrealistic demand for purity and perfection. This is not something that is particularly hard to do: recognize that you have a professional relationship with your colleagues, not a romantic one, and there are lines you don’t get to cross. Most of us men can handle that just fine — it’s no hardship — in our working and personal life, it’s just a few that are oblivious to the barriers. It doesn’t help that the most prestigious and high paying jobs seem to be accompanied by the perk that you get to throw away all personal responsibility and ignore the autonomy and humanity of your underlings.

Traister deserves the last word:

Considering all this, it is truly only a powerful white man who could have lived the past 20 years — through the defeat of his wife and the social revolution it helped to galvanize — and think that none of this effort or upheaval applied to him, especially given that so much of it applies to him directly. So as he goes on to sell more copies of his book I’d advise Bill Clinton to stop bitching about how this is Kennedy-era ancient history. This is the muck that many of us have been swimming in for decades, and much of it is of your making. Come on in; the water is sickeningly warm.

Dear Leader

Have you seen the mural painted inside the children’s detention center, the former Walmart that is being used to house young immigrants?

Dear Leader. Glorious Leader. Maximum Leader.

Nice to know he’s taking credit for his inhumanity. I notice they also put a portrait of Obama on a wall in there, but no one is fooled — this is a Republican action.

And what the heck is that, with that strange choice of an inappropriate quote?

Jurassic Park is fiction, someone tell Jack Horner

Jack Horner has an ambitious goal. He wants to reverse-engineer birds to recreate dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs could potentially walk among us in real life soon as the paleontologist who inspired the original Jurassic Park movie has announced a research project to bring the extinct creatures back to life. Dr. Jack Horner says scientists are only 5 to 10 years away from genetically engineering dinosaurs into existence.

Yeah, I know. He’s been puttering about with this for years, using every incremental change in bird genetics engineered in a lab as confirmation of his project’s feasibility. It’s interesting developmental biology. It’s not going to get him to his goal.

Horner cited a 2015 study as his “proof of concept,” noting that scientists at Harvard and Yale were able to trick a bird’s head into changing into a dinosaur snout.

“Basically what we do is we go into an embryo that’s just beginning to form, and use some genetic markers to sort of identify when certain genes turn on and when they turn off,” he said.. “And by determining when certain genes turn on, we can sort of figure out how a tail begins to develop. And we want to fix that gene so it doesn t stop the tail from growing.”

And there’s the problem: “that gene”. There isn’t a “that gene” — there is a whole ensemble of interacting genes that work together, and it’s simply not going to be doable in 5-10 years. There will be small changes in the desired direction, but every one of those new changes will have a ripple effect on a dozen or more other genes, and each of them will have to be tweaked to adjust their response, but then each of those will have downstream effects on a dozen other genes.

It’s not impossible, since evolution obviously shaped every species, but evolution is a massive project in parallel processing, with large population numbers and thousands of generations. We don’t know enough to be able to go in and in one grand experiment change all the relevant genes in exactly the right way, with foreknowledge of their interactions, to do what he wants in such a short time.

Also, evolution had an easier job in one sense: it doesn’t work towards a specific goal, but simply takes whatever it gets and accepts it if it survives. There was no intent to take a dinosaur species 150+ million years ago and sculpt it into a chicken, specifically. He’s not going to get a dinosaur — he’s going to get a weird-ass mutant chicken — and it’s going to take a lot more time, effort, and money than he naively expects.

Why does Jordan Peterson hate education?

Sheesh. Jordan Peterson came out with a video in collaboration with the awful PragerU, and it’s basically an anti-education screed, relying on misrepresenting universities, students, postmodernism, Marxism, and all the things he hates uncomprehendingly. So I responded to it.

I include my sorta script down below, but I’m not sure how comprehensible it’ll be, since the video is just me commenting on still frames from the PragerU BS. You’ll probably find ContraPoints on Peterson’s incoherence more enlightening.

[Read more…]

Breaking down the barriers

Science magazine has just summarized this massive report on sexual harassment in the sciences. Really, it’s a big file that will cost you $59 if you order it as a book, but it’s offered as a free PDF by National Academies Press, so you have no excuse for not getting it, but the short summary is appreciated.

The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, noted that many surveys fail to rigorously evaluate sexual harassment. It used data from large surveys done at two major research universities—the University of Texas system and the Pennsylvania State University system—to describe kinds of sexual harassment directed at students by faculty and staff. The most common was “sexist hostility,” such as demeaning jokes or comments that women are not smart enough to succeed in science, reported by 25% of female engineering students and 50% of female medical students in the Texas system. The incidence of female students experiencing unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion was lower, ranging in both Texas and Pennsylvania between 2% and 5% for the former and about 1% for the latter. But the report declares that a hostile environment—even if it consists “more of putdowns than come-ons,” as Johnson puts it—makes unwanted sexual attention and coercion more likely.

The report says women in science, engineering, or medicine who are harassed may abandon leadership opportunities to dodge perpetrators, leave their institutions, or leave science altogether. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of ubiquitous, online sexual harassment training and notes what is likely massive underreporting of sexual harassment by women who justifiably fear retaliation. To retain the talents of women in science, the authors write, will require true cultural change rather than “symbolic compliance” with civil rights laws.

I have a prediction: there are going to be people who are only going to see the 1% number and are going to argue that because it’s so low, sexual harassment isn’t a problem. Except that’s the number for actual sexual coercion of female students, and would you go into a field where there’s a 1% chance you’ll be raped or your advisor was going to pressure you for sex? The key numbers are that between a quarter and a half of all women students are going to face sexist discouragement, and that’s a huge pressure to turn away and turn off qualified prospective scientists. It has to be called out and ended.

Also note that those numbers are affected by a serious problem with underreporting.

Read this Twitter thread by Jennifer Raff on her experience as an undergraduate looking for advice on grad school, and being actively discouraged by a faculty member. It’s the opposite of what I experienced in a similar situation. The only difference I can see is that her undergrad GPA was a bit higher than mine, and she’s a woman.

Quoted for truth

From The Seattle 500 Women Scientists:

Despite the popular myth of the lone-wolf genius scientist, science is an inherently social, collaborative endeavor. Intensive scientific training involves close collaboration with a senior advisor. Most scientists can trace their “academic genealogy” through generations linked by formative relationships. Scientific papers typically include many authors who work together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Conferences and workshops where scientists mingle are petri dishes of new ideas and partnerships—they are nurseries and laboratories for future scientific communities. Scientific progress depends directly on the ability of scientists to discuss, argue, collaborate, and build upon on the knowledge of others.

Yes! I tell my students this: I explain to them that they have to work in teams in lab because that’s the only way they’ll ever succeed in this career.

I don’t know whether I’ve been doing something right, or something wrong

It’s sinking in that I’m never going to be rich. I was just reading about Shane Smith and Vice, and how he built a company that’s nominally worth billions with nothing but chutzpah…oh, and lies and exploitation.

While Vice’s soaring valuation had changed Smith’s life, there was little evidence among its employees that they were working at a company more valuable than the New York Times. Smith had proudly boasted in the past that Vice was “a sweatshop for trustafarians” who could afford to work for little pay, and in 2014, it was still a place where an employee could find herself taking care of a more senior colleague who was wasted after a Vice party and be worried she wouldn’t have enough money in her bank account to give the cabbie cash to clean up any vomit. A senior manager once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a “22 Rule”: “Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.”

And then I read about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s barfalicious wealth.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, brought in at least $82 million in outside income while serving as senior White House advisers during 2017, according to financial disclosure forms released Monday.

OK, feeling better now. I’m not rich, but apparently you have to be terrible, horrible, conscienceless scumbags to become rich in America.