Category: Academia

These posts offer my reflections or thoughts on various aspects of academic life. Clearly, they represent my perspective.

And Millennials Didn’t Invent…

Along with the list of things things Alex Nicholson points out Millennials didn’t discover “My Gen X life has been Columbused by Millennials,” I would add MOOCs.[1] The core dream of using the latest technology to democratize education and broadcast the best college and university lectures to the underprivileged has been failing for nearly a century. See, e.g., Prof. Michael Pupin’s “Radio Universities.”

Professor Pupin’s MORU: Massively Open Radio University
Professor Pupin’s MORU: Massively Open Radio University

  1. We, thankfully, haven’t been hearing as much about MOOCs lately. Perhaps the post-lapsarian utopia they promised turned out to be more hype than real. That’s not to say some people in some demographics with some resources and with the benefit of previous education don’t learn something from taking largely self-directed on-line courses—sort of technologically enhanced versions of “[Subject-of-Choice] for Dummies”—but the promises of solving “education’s problems" and making the world a better place seem to have been overblown.  ↩

Isaac Newton Scientific Revolution Essay

This morning an odd Google alert showed in my inbox.

At first glance, this Google alert seems normal. But then you notice the “Complex Systems Lab.”
At first glance, this Google alert seems normal. But then you notice the “Complex Systems Lab.”

At first glance, there’s nothing strange here. But looking again, I noticed that the webpage was “Complex Systems Lab.” The link directed me to http://complex.upf.edu/?ma=isaac-newton-scientific-revolution-essay.

The hijacked home page for Complex Systems Lab.
The hijacked home page for Complex Systems Lab.

What is a essay writing/selling site doing at an EDU site? So I typed in the base URL, complex.upf.edu, which looks like a legit website for a biophysics lab in Barcelona (though the “falling snow” is a bit old school in an uncool way).

Complex Systems Lab’s actual home page alongside the highjacked version.
Complex Systems Lab’s actual home page alongside the highjacked version.

Turns out that the cached version of the page is filled with Isaac Newton mumbo jumbo. Interesting.

This prompted me to wonder: How much would an essay on Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution cost? Well, turns out, that depends.

If I want a college level, 5-page research paper that uses 5-sources, and I’m willing to put up with the “Best available” writer, and I am willing to wait 3 days, it will cost me $120.00

The basic essay includes, free of charge, the “Best available” writer.
The basic essay includes, free of charge, the “Best available” writer.

The “Best available” apparently doesn’t know the difference between college and collage, but what do you expect for a “Free of charge feature!”? If I want a native English speaker, however, that will cost me another $36.

I have to pay a premium for a native English writer.
I have to pay a premium for a native English writer.

Native English speakers apparently don’t care about spaces after punctuation, but now I’m just nitpicking. Most intriguing is the “Plagiarism report.”

For $9.99 your essay comes with an “official plagiarism report.”
For $9.99 your essay comes with an “official plagiarism report.”

What exactly is “an official plagiarism report”? And why would somebody pay $9.99 for one? Is this a self-preservation issue? And is the company admitting that its writers normally plagiarize papers? And why would I pay for a report when the company’s “plagiarism guarantee” assures me that essays have not been plagiarized?

Every essay is guaranteed plagiarism free. I guess they have a hierarchy of vices.
Every essay is guaranteed plagiarism free. I guess they have a hierarchy of vices.

And what would I do with the “official plagiarism report,” brandish it when my professor accuses me of plagiarizing? I would love, LOVE to witness that conversation. I imagine it going something like:

Prof.: Something about this paper seems off. Although I haven’t found direct evidence of it, I would like to ask you: Did you, perhaps, plagiarize your paper on Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution?
Student: No. I didn’t. And here’s the official report to prove that I didn’t.
Prof.: [face-palm]

I think I might have to purchase one of these papers just to see one. I will, of course, pay for the official plagiarism report, which I will frame and hang on my wall.

Why do you blog?

Over drinks with colleagues the other evening the topic of blogs came up. While we all admitted to reading blogs on a regular basis, I was the only one amongst us who blogs (or even has a website). My colleagues doubted the value of a blog. Consequently, I found myself justifying to them the time and effort I invest in writing a blog, labor that seems to be uncompensated and, given the current systems of rewards in the U.S. academy, uncompensateable. My justifications included the platitudinous “outreach” and inchoate ideas about engaging in public debates. I tried to convince them why I blog. They tried to understand why I would blog. In the end, I suspect we are no closer.

Today I saw a tweet by Becky Higgitt (@beckyfh) that indicated academics don’t, as a rule, use their blogs for public outreach. Her tweet linked to an article at The Guardian, “Why do academics blog? It’s not for public outreach, research shows.”

Becky points out that most academics don’t blog for public outreach.
Becky points out that most academics don’t blog for public outreach.

In the article, Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) and Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) analyzed 100 academic blogs and found that most academics use their blogs to analyze academic culture or to communicate or comment on research:

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

In contrast to much of the rhetoric around blogging, most blogs they analyzed were written for other academics, not an interested public (read the whole article, which brings up some interesting points, especially about blogs and regulating what academics can say in public).

Their work analyzed the content of blogs. I wondered: How would academics who blog describe their motivations, their intended audiences, and the benefits (if any) they receive from blogging. Initially, I retweeted Becky’s tweet, asking #whyblog?

If not for outreach, I wondered, then #whyblog?
If not for outreach, I wondered, then #whyblog?

But then I thought, why not put together a small survey and collect some information to extend Thomson and Mewburn’s initial conclusions. So that’s what I did.

A couple quick points:

  • While I try to understand academic broadly, more of a scholar, I remain interested in why people with some academic affiliation blog.
  • I realize that some academics contribute to more than one blog and that their goals likely change with each place. If you are such an academic, please complete the survey for each blog.
  • Check as many boxes as apply for “Reasons for blogging” and “Intended audience.”
  • Finally, I am not an expert in designing and conducting surveys. If you are and would like to work together to do a better job at it, please contact me.

I will post the results when I have gathered enough to make them meaningful.

Thanks for taking the time. Please send your academic blogging friends this way.

The Survey

Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bruno

By now it seems clear: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos got Bruno wrong.[1] People have pointed out, and out, and out, and out, and out the various errors.[2] Meg Rosenburg starts to move the discussion beyond the errors by offering a bit more about Bruno. In her post Becky Ferreira adds still more detail. But as the comments to all these posts suggest, the vast majority of readers (at least those who bother to leave comments)[3] don’t care that Cosmos got it wrong—a disturbing number seem to defend Cosmos’s inaccuracies. And when Corey S. Powell challenged Cosmos’s selection and portrayal of Bruno (the second “and out” above), astronomer and co-writer Steven Soter also defended his mischaracterization of Bruno, which defense Thony C. takes apart.

Cosmos’s portrayal of Bruno is not the first time some media franchise or modern commentator has provoked historians of science.

A year ago Adam Gopnik hailed Galileo as the founder of modern science and defender of free rational thought. Historians of science took him to task for his depiction. Gopnik (like Soter) defended his characterization of Galileo, lambasting the “half-bright” pedants and dullards in the process, eliciting yet a further reply from historians, e.g., this one. Two months later, science writer Ed Yong linked to and praised Gopnik’s piece: “Galileo was a great scientist because he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. If only more of us did the same.,” sparking another response from Thony C.

The flat earth is another episode that gets recycled, despite popular and scholarly work refuting it (I’ve ranted about the power of the flat earth myth).

Unfortunately, I fear these rearguard efforts will have no more effect this time than they have had in the past because they fail to provide readers and audiences with something. It’s easy to be condescending, to dismiss these triumphalist distortions of the past as reassuring modern audiences of their superiority. But such an approach is not helpful. Those of us who get worked up over the Cosmos’s version of Bruno or Obama’s invocation of Columbus and the flat earth or Gopnik’s use of Galileo come off sounding like churlish pedants[4] who have missed the forest of truth for the trees of irrelevant detail.

Rather than righting all the wrongs, perhaps we should start telling our own stories in compelling ways. To do that we have to begin by asking: What was Cosmos trying to accomplish in using Bruno?[5] Why did Cosmos bother to invoke Bruno (or any historical figure)? What does Cosmos’s use of the past suggest about the value of that past? What was the Cosmos’s audience looking for in such an article, and how is that complicated by the fact that this show is produced and broadcast on FOX?[6] These questions can prompt us to think about how to communicate with audiences beyond the history of science.

However engaged historians and historians of science might be, we have failed to communicate (effectively ?) with various audiences beyond the boundaries of our own discipline.[7] In that sense, I think Kelly J. Baker is right to encourage academics to do a better job engaging other publics.[8] We haven’t demonstrated the value of our knowledge and expertise.[9] We haven’t convinced people that we and our knowledge matter.

Do we want to be Neil deGrasse Tysons? Probably not. But we’re all a long way from that.


  1. This is the first and probably most positive in what will likely be a series of posts prompted by the brouhaha over Cosmos’s recent depiction of Giordano Bruno. The producers and writers and editors of Cosmos failed to think about enlisting an expert in the process. Although Neil deGrasse Tyson probably had little to do with the writing, as the face of Cosmos he has been implicated in the depiction of Bruno as bold Copernican and proto-scientist. It would have been nice if somebody had consulted an expert—a historian or better still a historian of science of early modern science—about historical matters. As a preview of rants to come: Steven Soter is not an expert when it comes to historical topics, even if he has written a number of “popular works” and did research on the original Cosmos.  ↩

  2. And yet another post has detailed the problems with Cosmos’s depiction of Bruno.  ↩

  3. Reading through the dogmatic, repetitive, trite, and inaccurate drivel that accretes in comment sections often by people hiding behind anonymity confirms for me my decision to turn off comments here. Sure, buried in those comments are some well-formulated and defensible observations, now and then, but everybody would be better served if those commenters with well-formulated and defensible observations wrote their own posts about the issues, thereby broadening the conversation.  ↩

  4. Are there any other kinds of pedants?  ↩

  5. The easy but less than constructive answer casts this as primarily science vs. religion or new-atheists vs. young-earth-creationists or rationality vs. dogma. There is, to be sure, considerable merit to that interpretation. See, e.g., Tim O’Neill’s comments toward the end of his detailed post.  ↩

  6. These are just a subset of questions I asked about Gopnik’s piece last year, Gopnik on Galileo.  ↩

  7. The issue of academic engagement has exploded recently, following Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times. See, for example, Corey Robin’s response and further thoughts, and Gwendolyn Beetham’s response.  ↩

  8. I admit, I have been part of the problem. I have ranted here, in my own little sandbox, about issues but have only half-heartedly tried to reach beyond this sandbox. As a junior academic, I feared reprisal—the academic panopticon is powerful. As a recently tenured academic, I can’t hide behind that excuse any longer. I have “engaged” audiences in other, non-conventional ways, and work with lower school and middle school students, and local retirement communities and continuing education communities. But those are easy.  ↩

  9. This is more than just literacy, which Audra Wolf has rightly pointed out is insufficient:
    Audra
    Audra is one a few historians of science who has recently moved beyond the academic sandbox, “Why Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science.” Patrick McCray is another. There are others, but they remain a minority.  ↩

Reading Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Two copies of Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity stand side-by-side on a shelf, one previously belonged to Ernan McMullin the other to the retired historian of science. I have read neither copy.

Ernan had received the book to review for a journal. He wasn’t entirely convinced by Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. In the margins of his copy are numerous worries, often expressed as single-word questions such as “evidence?” With some regularity Ernan judged passages “sloppy.”

Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity
Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Ernan’s marginal critique pales in comparison to the detailed and somewhat schizophrenic praise-condemnation that spills across the margins of the other copy.

The retired historian of science consumed his books, explicitly contrasting passages in different books, evaluating and correcting other passages, and liberally underlining in various colors. When in 1961 he turned his attention to Gillispie’s book, he spared no effort. Like Ernan, he found a number of passages “confusing” and “obscure.” “Phooey” appears regularly in the margins. At one point he thought Gillispie’s discussion was “MISLEADING!” and in other place it was “Pure B.S.”

On page 89 he disagreed with Gillispie’s characterization of Descartes, and invoked E. J. Dijksterhuis’s recently published The Mechanization of the World Picture (1961) to illustrate Gillispie’s mistake:

G. has not accurately represented D: Cf. Dijks., p. 416. What D. really does is this (in effect)

He then reproduces the diagram from Dijksterhuis’s book illustrating the law of refraction. At times he even added explanatory notes to his own marginal notes.

His marginal notes occasionally leave traces of him learning new expressions, as on page 460 where he has put an asterisk next to the word “Scylla” and added in the bottom margin:

*“bet. S. & C.”—an idiom. S.: a dangerous rock on It’n side of Messina Strait; C: whirlpool on the other

He was constantly unhappy with Gillispie’s term “objective science.” At one point he ranted in the margin: “What the hell he means by this broken record we’s all give much to know.”

“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.
“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.

Whatever his problems with Gillispie’s book, it didn’t stop him from reading it carefully and compiling his own “Annotated Table of Contents,” which he glued into the book directly in front of the printed table of contents.

The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.
The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.

In the end, he seemed to both like and despise Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. He scrawled his thoughts across the title page:

Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.
Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.

Its style is lush to the point of distracting—all too cleaver [sic], all to [sic] poetic—for a text, at least.
Dates given sporadically only
Up to p. 35 (so far) I have the impression that he is not really seriously trying to explain what’s going on, only scintillates. He doesn’t explain, he drops charming hints
One of the main difficulties w/ this, as a text, is that the instr. must strive to justify gill., even w/o saying so to the class.
But it bristle’s [sic] with provocative insights.
It is an interpretative commentary—not an expository work—in style much like de. S’s Origin.
But it is elegant in places, and not just Roccoco [sic].
Cf. e.g. p.49
Elegant but uninformative
Chap. II, III, IV are quite good
Chap. V is potentially good, & good for the specialist, but pompous again.
Chap. VI is hopeless again. Here is a difficult subject presented by innuendo, as if to someone already well-versed in it.
Chap. VIII is his best so far, and is superb, though his judgement on biological romanticism—Lamarckianism, seems unduly harsh.
Chap. IX Energetics [& Entropy] is the best I can recall

I can’t help but admire his exhaustive and at times exhausting digestion of a text.