Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: February 2007

Praise by Design

Via Marginal Revolution, an interesting overview article on studies of the effects of praising children for their innate abilities (intelligence, uncultivated skill, etc.) vs. praising them for the effort they direct into a task. I’ve posted occasionally here and elsewhere on my criticism of the “self esteem” claims that run through popularised literature and professional practice in the education sector (at least when and where I worked in the field, which was admittedly a long time ago, in a nation far, far away…) – where a belief that adults need to instill a “high sense of self-esteem” in children functioned as a sort of unchallenged “urban legend” regulating educational practice in what I often considered to be counter-productive ways.

Out of context, my position will probably sound a bit odd: the short version is that my pragmatic experience of consulting on educational program design caused me, over time, to conclude that a principal challenge when developing effective educational strategies, particularly for children who are struggling, is actually to communicate that the need to expend considerable effort when learning is quite normal and to be expected, and should not be interpreted as a sign of failure: that some level of struggle – even quite a high level of struggle – in the process of learning is a feature, not a bug, and that one can come out the other side of this struggle with the mastery of a new skill. My perception of most strategies oriented to short-circuiting this process and trying to instill “high self esteem” directly, rather than trying to provide students with repeated, supportive opportunities to experience how they could successfully overcome frustrating situations, was that they encouraged precisely the opposite of their intended effect – convincing students either that challenging themselves was unnecessary, or that the experience of being challenged itself was a sign of failure. This summary article sounds as though there’s now a reasonable body of research that supports this position…

Since I don’t tend to write on my educational work here, though, I’m not actually posting the link to bask in how it confirms my predispositions… ;-P (And, in any event, I haven’t had the opportunity to backtrack to the studies themselves, to see how much confidence I place in their findings…) I was, however, intrigued by some of the methodologies reported in the summary article, and thought the piece might therefore be of interest to some students from a research design point of view. Even in the limited detail that comes through in the summary, there are some very clever ideas for organising a research process.

I have to admit, I’m a bit ethically leery about the first method discussed in detail: children were given a fairly easy task to complete, and at the end of the task were given a single line of praise – told either that they were “smart” or that they must have “worked hard”. The “smart” students, according to this study, then trended toward risk aversion and, after exposure to a deliberate failure via a task purpose-designed to be too difficult for them to do, their performance on the original easy task actually went down, while the “hard working” students trended toward more challenging tasks, and their performance improved. All well and good, and the conclusions are certainly interesting, but there’s something about the process of providing the kids with a specific set of conceptual tools for processing their success or failure on a task, and then deliberately setting them up to fail, so you can stand back and observe that, yes, in fact, they used exactly the conceptual tools you gave them… This technique gives me – I think the technical term would be – the heebie jeebies… But this reaction doesn’t remove interest from the thinking behind the research design…

In any event, this and other studies are recounted in more detail in the article and, I suspect, backtracking the studies could be quite useful as a source for creative research design concepts.

The Present Twilight

So I haven’t written much substantive lately – and this post unfortunately won’t break that trend. ;-P Prosaic work responsibilities are bearing down on me and, for at least the next several weeks, I simply won’t have time to dig in to serious questions. Which is frustrating, because I feel at the moment like I’m absolutely seething with ideas that are searching for expression and form. And writing – structured, sustained, in-depth writing, rather than the sorts of scattershot sketches I can dash off in between other things – is the only way I know to show myself what I’m thinking – to discover what force, if any, these still-inchoate ideas might possess… Read more of this post

The Dark Side of Academic Life

A chance encounter in a coffee shop yesterday led to a discussion of the way in which personality and mood can be transformed by the process of socialisation into the academic profession. My friend commented that, when they started out, they felt enthusiastic about both their teaching and their work – possessed of a baseline optimism and idealism that, they felt, had been gradually eroded over the course of their graduate degree. As a symbol of this shift, they mentioned that their partner, noticing the darkward trend in their mood, had given them a Darth Vader action figure as a gift some months back:

So that was funny – and it stayed in its box for a while. But lately… You know… I have this Einstein figure that sits on my computer, and I’ve been thinking… I kind of want to, you know… take the Darth Vader figure out of its box, you know… and have it sort of kill off the Einstein…

So what do folks think: is the chalk mightier than the saber?

Einstein and Darth Vader action figures confront one another.

The Plot Quickens

Via Mark Liberman at Language Log, Lawrence Saul has assembled a piece on academic conference papers as an episode of 24. I think I’ve seen this plot somewhere before…


The following events take place on February 9, 2007, between the hours of:


Midnight – 1:00 am

Paper exists in skeletal form, with preliminary results. All seems well until hero exposes shadowy bugs in implementation of core routines.


1:00 am – 2:00 am

Hero assembles crack team of students and postdocs by email. Suffers moral anguish knowing that one or more will need to be sacrificed for greater good.


4:00 am – 5:00 am

Team shows signs of cracking under pressure. Hero reverts to “motivational methods” from covert and troubled past. (Episode contains flashbacks.)


5:00 am – 6:00 am

Tensions flare. Team members put aside personal differences when late-breaking experiments yield better than expected results.


6:00 am – 7:00 am

Long overdue literature search reveals large body of related work. Scarce resources must be diverted to decipher its relevance.


7:00 am – 8:00 am

One by one, key members of team disappear for coffee, precisely when they are needed most.


9:00 am – 10:00 am

Student who cannot let go of old ideas must be “retired”.


10:00 am – 11:00 am

Hero is trapped in committee meeting. A secretive channel is opened for instant messaging, enabling further progress.


Noon – 1:00 pm

Hero, exhausted, responds without thinking to knock at door. Undergraduates swarm office with questions about Monday’s homework assignment.


6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Sluggish CPUs reveal rogue team member (previously retired in episode 10) running unauthorized background processes.


9:00 pm – 10:00 pm

Rumor of extended deadline is picked up on Internet chatter. Sources are tracked down and ultimately discredited.


10:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Figures and references added to paper, which consequently overflows to ten pages. Frantic pruning. Rough draft submitted at 10:58 pm.


11:00 pm – Midnight

Proofreading reveals extensive typos and sign errors. Paper teeters on brink of eight page limit through multiple revisions. In act of ultimate sacrifice, hero removes all self-citations. Final submission: 11:59:59 pm.

Blogging for the Bottom Line

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has a post up about blogging as self-experimentation, in which he notes the following effects of blogging – persumably on himself:

Blogging makes us more oriented toward an intellectual bottom line, more interested in the directly empirical, more tolerant of human differences, more analytical in the course of daily life, more interested in people who are interesting, and less patient with Continental philosophy. All you bloggers out there, or spouses of bloggers, what effects do you notice?

I run afoul of the Continental philosophy effect – and am likely also to be an outlier on issues related to the greater appreciation of the directly empirical – but I still enjoyed the post and the subsequent discussion. My favourite comment thus far is this delightfully cynical observation posted by mk:

I really enjoy the fact that blog posts tend to be terse.
I think there are not enough penalties for being verbose or poorly-organized.
Most books strike me as unnecessary. Powerpoint, maybe with a 20-page supporting paper, would do a better job in most cases, I think.

One disadvantage is that blogs may not provide the most natural framework for organizing complicated arguments. But (as with books), we may simply be deluding ourselves if we believe we can understand most complicated arguments anyway.

Regular readers of this blog will not be much tempted to call me “terse” – although L Magee has suggested that, when I do manage a terse post, I sometimes do so artfully… ;-P But LM’s perception of terseness may have been irrevocably impaired by our recent reading of Hegel… ;-P

Method Acting

PhD students in my school have a sort of progress review every six months, resulting in a written record that goes on the student’s file. These reviews vary from program to program (and from supervisor to supervisor), a diversity that interferes with the normal process whereby students gossip with one another and share tips about how best to prepare for such things… ;-P Last night, I received the following email from a colleague puzzling through the requirements for their upcoming review:

In preparing for my “candidature confirmation” – I notice that “methodologies” is distinguished from “methods”. I have not found any meaningful distinction between the two, other than methodology should be the *study* of methods. But I’m confused about methodology in the plural – I thought this was synonymous with method itself (like multimedia is synomymous with media). Am I missing something?

As someone who teaches “methodology”, I suppose I should know the answer to this question, but I confess I’m at a bit of a loss… My stab at the question was that “methodologies” might be the “to do list” component of method – what you’re planning to do, in the order in which you’re planning to do it – while “methodology” might be the logic that explains why your “to do list” can actually provide an adequate answer to the research question you’ve asked. But this is just a passing speculation on my part… Anyone have a more grounded answer (or a more entertaining speculation) for the question?

Things I Shouldn’t Read While Writing

Voltaire on what makes for bad academic speeches:

The necessity of saying something, the perplexity of having nothing to say, and a desire of being witty, are three circumstances which alone are capable of making even the greatest writer ridiculous. These gentlemen, not being able to strike out any new thoughts, hunted after a new play of words, and delivered themselves without thinking at all: in like manner as people who should seem to chew with great eagerness, and make as though they were eating, at the same time that they were just starved.

All That Is Solid…

Abstract figure under seigeI’ve been flitting around a bit this morning, as I tend to do when trying to complete essentially administrative tasks – I generally have a long list (either in my head or, if it’s particularly complex, written out) of relatively atomised things I need to finish. I learned some time ago – one of the lasting legacies of managing a business – that I could work most rapidly if I would skip over any item on the list that – for whatever reason: mood, complexity, resources, etc. – I didn’t feel I would complete as quickly as possible. This strategy means that I keep working on something – that something gets done – and that I don’t delay finishing simple things I’m in the mood to do, because I’ve held myself up with complex things I wasn’t… As things get done, and I loop back through the list, I often find that I’m now in the mood to do something that seemed unappealing earlier – or that I have gotten through enough that, if I now have to spend quite some time ferreting around after bits and pieces required to finish a task, or if I drag out a task I dislike, this process won’t hold up everything else I need to complete.

Before starting on a complex task, I also tend to spend a bit of time thinking over what it will involve and what I’m trying to achieve – getting the relevant issues in my head. And then I take a quick break to do something completely unrelated – basically, because I find that, as with so many other things, I tend to sort things out somewhat nonconsciously, and this process facilitates a certain level of nonconscious problem solving… Lately, the unrelated task to which I turn my attention is often blogging – so readers can tell, if I have a spurt of fragmentary posts in a day, this means either that I’ve had a day filled with meetings with tiny breaks in between that aren’t suited to any other productive purpose, or that my blog posts are functioning like tick marks on my list of things I needed to get done… ;-P

Today has been a day of tick mark blogging. Read more of this post

Things I Shouldn’t Read While Supervising

From the inimitable Sarapen, who apparently always keeps the bottom line in view:

Dear god.

“By 1979 a frustrated Stanford graduate student in mathematics named Theodore Streliski had spent eighteen years in futile pursuit of a Ph.D. When the last in a string of advisers requested further thesis revision, the student killed him with a hammer.” – Robert L. Peters in Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D.

“One of my most-loved profs was a lit/myth guy, and he was shot to death by one of his grad students who’d been working on a PhD for years.” (gradstudents)

Like someone from the thread asked, just how often does this happen, anyway? I mean, really, eighteen years? Oh, and the advisor-killing part is also shocking. Still, after eighteen years I might kill someone too.

Don’t Mention the War

Sarapen and I were just discussing the other day our mutually vague relationship to the war over “theory” that periodically ebbs and flows across various blogs we lurk. I commented that it made me feel somewhat of an inadequate ethnographer, that I couldn’t seem to get a better feel for this dispute – a comment that already suggests that I experience myself in a strange side-on relationship to this discussion, such that I have a bit of trouble imagining how I’d intervene in any way other than ethnographically.

The latest iteration of the debate, for anyone who’d like to follow, was, as far as I can tell, initiated by John Holbo’s post at The Valve, which was then picked up by Adam Kotsko at The Weblog, and in a different way by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted to I Cite). I don’t intend here to comment on these (quite elaborate and extended) discussions, but instead to point to what seem, to me, to be some interesting conversational eddies operating to the side of the main fray. I wanted particularly to draw attention to:

Joseph Kugelmass’ contribution at The Valve, which sets itself the quite ambitious – but important – goal of addressing the questions:

why I think the debate has taken its current form, what it means to do theory while fully aware that one is doing so, and how all this relates to blogging and the blogosphere ideal of good faith

And Sinthome’s analysis at Larval Subjects, which asks how these debates might refract themes related to the assertion of institutional power, and whether this might encourage a tendency to reach for an engagement with overarching catch-all categories, rather than with the substantive arguments of individual theorists. Sinthome’s post ends with a challenge I see as particularly important in any debate over theoretical systems:

However, as a more pressing matter, what I can’t figure out is what alternative there might be to Theory. If the critics of Theory wish to convince me that they occupy a superior position they’re going to have to offer me something in return, some sort of option or some sort of alternative. All of my analytic training– and by this I mean Anglo-American philosophy –teaches me that there is no such thing as a non-theory laden perspective. This is the lesson to be drawn from the likes of Sellars. What, then, is this non-theory laden perspective of which these critics seem to be speaking?

At the moment, my schedule really doesn’t allow me to comment in any substantive way on the overarching debate, but I thought it was at least worthwhile pointing to these pieces in particular for the productive questions they pose and the way in which they seek to slice through the major stakes in the cross-blog discussion.