Thursday, March 21, 2013

The downside of used books

An example of the marginalia you may discover in them, and the consternation it can cause for the next reader:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The pressing questions of our age, 4 and 5

1) Does anyone actually wear clip-on earrings? Why do they constitute such a large share of the vintage earring market?

2) The only purpose of online final sale is to force you into bad consumer decisions you will immediately regret, like $11 shiny pink pants that don't quite fit, and did I mention are shiny and pink? From which, the pressing question - try to make them work by shrinking them in the dryer (thereby possibly resulting in doll pants), or stick them on ebay?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Transparency and holistic admissions

All my Facebook lefties have been linking this article about Fisher v. Texas, the bulk of which is the usual accusations of racism and image-manipulation against opponents of affirmative action, but the chewy center (and what all my FB linkers have attended to) are these numbers: 
Even among those students, Fisher did not particularly stand out. Court records show her grade point average (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were good but not great for the highly selective flagship university. The school's rejection rate that year for the remaining 841 openings was higher than the turn-down rate for students trying to get into Harvard. 
As a result, university officials claim in court filings that even if Fisher received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, the letter she received in the mail still would have said no. 
It's true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white. [MSI note: this is on. pp.15-17 of the brief.]
Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher's who were also denied entry into the university that year. 
See, so racial discrimination against Fisher was, if not impossible, at least unlikely, because 42 white students with worse overall admissions scores (as determined by the admissions committee, and including both academic and personal qualities) than Fisher were admitted, and 168 minorities with better ones denied. What interests me about this is that, under the "holistic review" regime, this is what it takes to disprove discrimination - the university must divulge the profiles of all applicants, rejections, and "provisional admissions," by race and admissions score for the given year. And I'd think this disclosure does not go quite far enough to prove that in Fisher's case, race was not the decisive factor. How many white students with equal or better admissions scores than Fisher were denied that year? Was it proportional to their application numbers? Was the minority rejection rate similarly proportional? The brief submitted by the University of Texas omits not only these details, but also the factors that went into the admissions scores in the first place - that is, what were the data behind these admissions scores, broken down by race? And this is only Fisher's single situation; think of how many Abigail Fishers there are in the country who apply to universities whose admissions profiles they more or less fit, even if at the low end, and are rejected. Can each one demand such exhaustive evidence from a school that her rejection was free of discrimination?

The goal of holistic admissions was of course to avoid this very outcome, in which every application datum would have to be quantified and plugged into a formula like the one that the medical school in Bakke used. Universities would henceforth not count race alone as a plus factor, but also such various pluses as violin aptitude, demonstrations of humanitarian concern, and being from the sticks. Everyone can get pluses, and from practically anything! The only catch is that these schools would not have to say how much of a plus any of these pluses was worth in the whole plussy scheme of getting in, because of course individualized evaluation varies by individual. So no reasonably qualified applicant can ever know why he was rejected, only that he was evaluated in his wholeness by professionals, and found wanting. There is a parallel anxiety from acceptance as well, the quiet hope that it was real qualification and not some accidental trait that determined one's admission, but this anxiety generates fewer public complaints, just as few students complain to TAs that their grades are too high. So although the opacity runs both ways - you can never know why you were either accepted or rejected - it's the opacity of rejection that is the source of public ire.

Ironically, under the very regime intended to avoid simplistic comparisons, the only persuasive defense against accusations of racial discrimination is near-total transparency in university admissions. It's not enough to insist that the school is X percent white/black/Hispanic/Asian to demonstrate nondiscrimination, since we can't know what percent it should be without knowing who was rejected and why. Harvard is 17 percent Asian, explains the Crimson, which is three times the percentage of Asians in the population, so we can know "that affirmative action is not resulting in far fewer Asians being admitted than there would be otherwise." But, of course, this - how many of the total the Asian applicants should have been admitted - is precisely what we cannot know simply from the number who were admitted.

And when it's some place like Harvard or Princeton, we can all pile on the sore losers who whine that their rejections were "not fair" because, with the overall acceptance rate so low, there is apparently no fairness or desert worth considering, so the opacity of admissions is actually an asset for the most selective schools, a kind of metaphorical analog to the statistical reality. Thus sayeth the ever-humble Crimson in the same editorial:
Making such a claim in the first place smacks of hubris—it is difficult to argue that any applicant definitely deserved to have gotten into Harvard, no matter how good his or her SAT scores or impressive his or her extracurriculars. Amazingly qualified applicants get rejected from Harvard all the time, making it almost impossible for this student to prove that it was his race, instead of any other factor, which resulted in his not being admitted.
It's because we Harvard students are all so amazing that you can't ever prove that you deserved to dwell among us. No one deserves such favor; it is a pure act of divine sovereign grace to be admitted. You should be grateful that the gods of Harvard even bothered to consider your application, little worm. This view obviously does not apply to state universities, access to which is viewed as a matter of desert and even right rather than divine election, subject only to some basic quality control. But the problem of proof, should an institution choose to undertake proof, is the same for both.

Private universities may be under less pressure to prove that they do not discriminate, but in either case, the only real demonstration of nondiscrimination under a holistic review system is transparency. Names might be withheld, but to show that a holistic review of an applicant did not discriminate in any partial aspect of his wholeness, the rest must be brought out into the light - how much did his violin playing compensate for his lower verbal SAT, and was that enough to merit admitting him over a minority with a higher verbal SAT score but lower class rank? Of course, this is precisely what universities least want to reveal, so much so that they won't release their admissions data even for academic research.

And their institutional caginess is understandable - the people who work in admissions are full of biases like the rest of us, and while few of them are likely acting on a grand racial agenda to either deny or admit all the minority applicants, they are given access to very personal information about each applicant, and they can't help forming judgments about them. This is where Unz's argument (adapted from The Gatekeepers) pointed to what I thought was the most likely cause of bias in admissions: people like people who are like them. So if the people doing admissions have never encountered 4-H clubs (and neither have I!), or think that good students who have few extracurriculars and little evidence of out-of-school engagement are boring drones, then subjecting such people's "holistic" admissions decisions to public scrutiny will reveal that yes, schools have been discriminating against some white (rural) students, or against Asians and other recent immigrants, but it won't reveal that this was not racially motivated, but rather the natural outcome of asking people with all kinds of pre-existing cultural and political interests to select a set of "interesting" candidates from a large pool. That is, it's the inevitable outcome of "holistic admissions." This is not necessarily because admissions committees are comprised of under-educated morons, as Unz alleges, or because membership in 4-H clubs and singular focus on academics are "regarded with considerable disfavor by the sort of people employed in admissions," but simply because they're unlike the priorities that these people hold. I suspect that universities know that transparency will make them look pretty bad and they'll be largely unable to justify their decisions as not racist, but having committed to this approach, they now have no way around this situation except to hide it.

So perhaps you can now see why I'm so intrigued by this defense of UT's admissions practices from the pro-affirmative action left. It's almost persuasive against Fisher's individual claim, but at what cost to the broader cause? Is every side now convinced that transparency will only vindicate their own suspicions? Can everyone now sue for - or simply demand - such explanations for their rejections as Fisher has gotten? (If so, perhaps Miss Self-Important will file some briefs of her own... Why you no love me 10 years ago, Wellesley College? No statute of limitations excuses - I demand answers!)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Brief vacation from my other vacation

Sedona, AZ. No mystical energies perceived.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The would-be motto of cheapness studies

"The unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge was a hero, selflessly denying himself luxuries so that everyone else in the country could pay less for necessaries."
--Andrew Stevens at Athens and Jerusalem

Monday, March 11, 2013

Department of Bad Ideas: Fitness

I have never been in favor of fitness as a hobby. Sports are fine if you must exercise, running is acceptable, but working out at the gym is wretched, and attending fitness classes like a spandex-clad lemming slavishly and sweatily aping the every move of the much more shapely spandex-clad captain of your sad lemming tribe - that is the worst. But now I live in southern California, and all anyone here seems to do is get in shape. It's not even fitness as a hobby, it's fitness as the driving imperative of one's life, with whatever professional and familial obligations one might have ranking only second or third in importance behind maintaining firm glutes. It is an eternal progress towards perfection, only think for a second what this progress really terminates in. There are people here who don't even seem to own any clothing for use in non-exercise contexts. Of course, I scorn all this, and all of them, and this entire state and its "lifestyle," but I have a lot of free time. So perhaps the collapse of my resistance was inevitable. 

At first, I was persuaded to take tennis lessons with a friend. I do not enjoy being instructed, but at least I've already reached a degree of tennis competence at which it's possible to enroll in a course that focuses mostly on strategy and not repetitive groundstroke drills, and the class has actually been very helpful, even though we are almost the worst players in it. And I was content with things, really. It's a two-day a week commute to UCSD, an hour each way. Time-consuming work!

But then I began noticing the phenomenon of the Saturday morning post-yoga class woman at coffee shops. The Saturday morning post-yoga class woman comes into the coffee shop around 11:30 am as you've just begun hopelessly trying to read Bodin while simultaneously writing your chapter on Bodin (and also online shopping, because let's face it, you suck) after having gotten out of bed only 30 minutes earlier. She has been up since 7 am. She is wearing very flattering yoga clothes and carting her mat in a designated yoga mat bag. Already fully alert from her morning workout, she requires no caffeine, and instead orders a green juice, takes out a trendy novel, and proceeds to her Saturday morning ritual of healthful productivity. Saturday morning post-yoga class woman does not consume pastries, although she could if she wanted to, having pre-emptively negated their caloric content with her careful attention to fitness. She could probably write your entire chapter in the time it takes her to finish one green juice. All of which of course means that if I become Saturday morning post-yoga class woman, I would finish my own chapter in the time it takes to drink a green juice, I would actually drink green juice, and I would otherwise be improved in every way.

The first problem with this plan is that I will not do yoga. It is just elaborate stretching, like we used to do in gym class under duress, but now re-branded with better outfits and a vague and exotic appeal to Eastern religion. Every hour, at least five college-educated women in American succumb to yoga because it's just so good for you and makes you feel so great. Whenever anything is so universally approved by the smart set that not even culture warring partisanship has produced detractors, I worry that civilization is in jeopardy (another contender for this honor is Downton Abbey).If I resist and it turns out to be yoga that leads us into a dystopian society, there will be at least someone left who remembers the world as it was before yoga, like in The Giver. So I decided to become Saturday morning post-generic fitness class woman instead. 

The second problem with this plan is that fitness classes are expensive and elaborately specialized and confusing. What kind of fitness do you want to do? Bike in place to excruciating music? Lift ball-shaped weights and swing them around? Lay on a mat and swing your legs around? Run around a room in circles while a large man yells at you? Suspend yourself from the wall? There are so many options! And once you select one, how do you fund it? But the solution to all these problems is Groupon, which can always get you to do that which you probably would rather not. 

My Groupon for 30 random fitness classes all over San Diego in hand, I surveyed these options and elected for the one that involves suspending yourself from a wall at 8 am on Saturday mornings. (You can look up TRX in Youtube if you wish to see a demonstration of self-wall suspension.) Did this seem moronic and antithetical to my vehement and arbitrary opposition to the humiliating nature of group exercise classes? Yes. But healthful productivity! I wasn't too concerned with the difficulty of this activity, because I am in ok shape from tennis and all those years of pre-Californian driving-avoidance, and it seemed like the wall was going to do most of the work for me. My main concern was planning my healthfully productive post-exercise Saturday, which was of course to include the requisite post-class visit to a coffee shop, followed by many productive hours of chapter-writing at home, and then a leisured evening out with my husband.

Well. I got up at 6 am, attended this class, after which I could hardly walk up the stairs out of the gym. Unlike the green juice women, I required coffee after this event, and upon returning home, immediately fell asleep. The next day, I first became aware of many muscles I never even knew I had by means of the intense pain they caused me each time they were called on to function. Two days on, sneezing still reminds me of the existence of all the muscles in my upper abdomen. If becoming Saturday morning post-yoga class woman will in itself requires months of practice, then how will I ever finish my dissertation at this rate? And there is still green juice to acclimate to!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Choosing your choice

If your ideological imperative is to elevate individual choice as a means of self-expression in every realm, isn't it ironic that you would seize on names - that aspect of identity in which all our choices are chosen by someone else - for your crusade? Keeping your name is choosing your father's choice, changing it is choosing your husband's father's choice, combining them is choosing the choices of all of the above. The only authentically self-expressive choice is inventing your own names - first and last - from scratch.

In that spirit, I shall be changing my own name to Mr. Sophrosune Self-Important. (I will not be changing my gender, only the salutation by which you must address me, because confusing and annoying people reflects an essential part of my self-identity and I desire my name to convey it.) Try tracking my genealogy from that, Andrew Stevens.

UPDATE: On second thought, this morning I find that a better reflection of my selfhood would be expressed in the name Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Snodgrass. I do embrace my sex, after all, and I also admire Benjamin Franklin and wish to revive the nineteenth century American tradition of giving children the full name of a great figure, plus the familial surname. I think Snodgrass is a good-sounding surname. At least for today.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Self-inflicted hate crime prediction

In addition to the annals of academic impostors, there is another fascinating related phenomenon of late modern universities that I follow, and that is the self-inflicted hate crime. The first such incident in my files is the woman at Claremont who vandalized her own car, but there is also the Columbia noose incident, the Princeton incident in which a student improbably beat himself up, and then this little-noticed event in Connecticut last year. Maybe there are others? I would love to know about them.

Like Ivy League posers, these people are impostors of a sort, and their stories are almost always the same: they just wanted to raise awareness of what they perceived to be pervasive but frustratingly invisible or unnoticed bigotry against some minority group - blacks, women, gays, conservatives, whatever - by giving that bigotry a shockingly visible face. It's just like performance art for social justice, only the part where it's discovered that they committed the hate crime themselves has an annoying tendency to detract from the art's didactic effect on the audience. Still, between hate crime perpetration and perpetrator discovery, there is usually enough time for administrators to orchestrate a very cathartic period of campus solidarity, in which students express great trepidation about their security, what with haters in their midst. Who knows what else such a twisted mind might be capable of? After the discovery of the hoax, those most swept up in recriminations rarely just let go, but instead insist that this has been an important learning experience about the poisonous consequences of bigotry, regardless of the fact that no bigotry has actually taken place. This is all capped off by ritual insistence that the self-inflictor of the hate crime is to be pitied rather than punished, just like the Ivy League impostor, because he must be suffering from some sort of mental imbalance that drove him to such extremes of conduct. Well, maybe this special condition will find its way into the next DSM. But until then (and let's be real, probably after then as well), Miss Self-Important will persist in laughing at these people and the campus performances they instigate.

Now there is Oberlin's supposed student chapter of the KKK: 
The incidents included slurs written on Black History Month posters, drawings of swastikas and the message “Whites Only” scrawled above a water fountain. After midnight on Sunday, someone reported seeing a person dressed in a white robe and hood near the Afrikan Heritage House. Mr. Krislov and three deans announced the sighting in a community-wide e-mail early Monday morning.
Cue the usual cries of fear and insecurity, the self-flagellation, and the campus-wide assemblies and cancelled classes. Now, Miss Self-Important is of course willing to eat her words if proven wrong, but she's going to go ahead and predict that this will be another self-inflicted hate crime for her files. The vandal will turn out to be some activist type from (judging by the demographics of the students quoted in the NYT piece) suburban Boston who was fed up with the lack of racism to fight on a campus where everyone is already against it, and the KKK outfit will turn out to have been a figment of the witness's imagination, or some guy in a white jacket. Because really, there are probably more Bengal tigers prowling Oberlin's campus than living, breathing KKK sympathizers.

UPDATE: Oh, nevermind. Everybody has already beaten me to identifying this predictable series of events.

UPDATE II: Some googling unearths a bigger cache of college hate crime hoaxes from Inside Higher Ed, plus the perfect illustration of the "it's still a hate crime even if it's actually not" insistence of administrators:
But one should not discount these incidents, even if they are set up, some officials say. Regardless of whether a hate crime actually occurred, the fact that a student would feel compelled to fake one points to a whole other set of problems beyond just crisis response. “As an administrator, those are the kinds of things I’m really sensitive to – what are the students saying – because even if it’s not true, the perception is their reality,” said William L. Howard, assistant vice president of academic services at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In other words, while a student’s method of calling attention to perceived prejudice may be flawed, that perception of prejudice still exists. “If you say, ‘This is not an issue on my campus,’ and a student has an experience that is counter to that, you have to listen to them.”

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Girls' lit and real lit

This essay about ghostwriting the Sweet Valley High series (surprisingly not a part of Miss Self-Important's childhood trash reading landscape but nonetheless familiar) while in English grad school is wonderful (via Emily Hale). The author seems to want to cast her grad school experience in a dim light, but it ends up sounding vaguely romantic to me:
I was a graduate student because I wanted to be, but there was a part of me that grew tired of the drabness and the drizzle, the black gowns, the bluebooks, the endless one-upmanship of academia. The people I studied had been dead for centuries. Once in a while—skulking around the edges of a period that ended hundreds of years before I was born—I wondered why I cared so much about people who lived and died in the 1600s. I read alone, I wrote alone. Sometimes I ate dinner alone at a vegan restaurant I liked and I’d look at people—other people, laughing and sitting together—and wondered if they could even see me. I suspected not...

In one version of myself, I was a twenty-something, Jewish, academic version of Elizabeth Wakefield. In that life—the earnest, responsible one—I was a resident tutor, writing fellowship letters for cream-of-the-crop seniors in exchange for room and board; a graduate student in seventeenth-century British literature, taking comps and Orals and picking a dissertation topic. After my coursework was done, I worked as a TA for one professor after another—running discussion sections and grading bluebooks and papers and sitting in the back of the hall while my professors lectured. Elizabeth-Wakefield-as-PhD-student, I saw why the real credit for Sweet Valley High belonged to Francine Pascal and not to me. Graduate students understand behind-the-scenes work. One semester, I was a TA for three different courses, teaching fifty or sixty students at a time, grading so many papers and bluebooks that the third finger of my right hand developed a funny ink-stained bump where my ballpoint rested. I didn’t complain—I was grateful for the work... 
Partly, I think I kept ghostwriting for the same reason I kept signing on to be a TA. I was afraid of becoming dispensable. If I stopped—even for a few months—someone else would grab my place. The editors would stop needing me. They’d forget how quickly I wrote, how dependable I was, how few corrections my manuscripts needed. Just like being a teaching assistant, “more” for me meant “better.” If I taught three sections a semester, that meant I was in demand. Eight books a year meant they wanted me. Me. The OED says the word “ghostwriter” was first used in the 1920s to mean a “hack” hired to write another person’s story. OK, hack, then. So be it. But a hack-in-demand. A hack they wanted. A type-A hack, the Elizabeth Wakefield of hackdom! ...

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.
This is academia as seen through in the dreamy vision of girls' books, in which an educative period of trudging through the snow with armfuls of books is a romantic adventure which ends by a domestic hearth (and indeed, Boesky is now a professor at BC, and lives in cozy Chestnut Hill with husband and children), all of which I mean as no slight against her. This story arc is in all the best girls' books, and has resonated for at least two centuries. Girls have to be built somehow, and good girls' books, of which the SVH books are only a banal derivative, are as good a construction material as any. Boesky doesn't answer the first question she poses - why is she bothering to study centuries-dead English poets? - but I get the sense that some years spent reading Alcott and Montgomery and their modern incarnations may have played a role in that. This woman was clearly a natural for the ghostwriting job.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Experimental caffeination: coffee and chocolate milk

I was recently in LA and found myself on Abbot-Kinney, which, as I was accurately warned by Jennie, is a place where coffee shops are for being noticed in and not for working. Unfortunately, I had to work, so after being glared out of two sleeker coffee shops, ended up in a decidedly lower-rent one more amenable to hiding behind a book from the glamorous humanity swirling around for a couple of hours. Instead of the usual iced coffee, however, they offered something called a Brown Cow - half iced coffee, half chocolate milk. Peeps, this is a great idea. If you put milk in your coffee anyway, why not chocolate milk? Eliminates all the need for sugar. Anyway, I've been trying it at home with hot coffee, and it is great. LA is full of geniuses. But also freeways, so still not suitable for human habitation.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Mergers and acquisitions

Q: What would my blog look like if it was Athens and Jerusalem merged with What Would Phoebe Do
A: Many short posts about nail polish shades.

In that spirit, I have, with significant lag time, followed Phoebe's lead and acquired bubblegum pink nail polish, though my hunt for it was much briefer and spanned fewer continents, but I'm sure the result will also peel and chip sooner.