Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

John Updike died yesterday. This photo by Robert Spencer for the New York Times, at the Boston Public Library in 2006, captures something of Updike's commitment to the whole of literature and reading; his frank, direct, and slightly amused gaze; his somewhat deceptive but deeply genuine and consistent self-presentation of well groomed respectability.

photo credit: Robert Spencer, New York Times, 2006

"Remembering Updike," The New Yorker, 27 January 2009.

"Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," The New Yorker, 1960. [from Baseball Almanac online]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Chief Strict Constructionist and the Oath of Office

Chief Justice John Roberts badly mangled the presidential oath of office, the text of which is actually in the Constitution.

Roberts started by asking, "Are you prepared to take the office, Senator?" In fact, Barack Obama was already president, and had been since noon -- according to the Constitution.

Then Roberts got the oath wrong; President Obama tried gamely to go along. At the end of the oath as it is given in the Constitution, Roberts added to the offense by adding the words -- not in the Constitution -- "so help you God." Obama dutifully did repeat the words "So help me God," as has become customary. What is so peculiar about the Roberts addition of the words is that he spoke them as a question, as if he doubted the answer -- "So help you God?"

President Obama was a good sport about it, and even went over to Roberts at the luncheon that immediately followed the inauguration to pat Roberts on the back and brush off any hint that he had been offended.

Then, yesterday -- Wednesday -- President Obama took the oath again, administered by Chief Justice Roberts, using the correct words.

Wikipedia has a useful article on the oath of office.

See also Steven Pinker, "Oaf of Office," New York Times, 22 January 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009

College Customer Satisfaction

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the chancellor of Texas A&M University proposes to award performance bonuses to professors who score highest on student ratings. He defends this very bad idea by arguing that "This is customer satisfaction."

Student ratings of teacher effectiveness can have their uses, especially if used along with other measures of effectiveness. Alone, they are likely to be misleading, especially in comparing teachers in different sorts of classes and different disciplines. The ratings, rightly or not, exert a lot of pressure on faculty to relax standards and raise grades in a sort of bargaining with the students. The ratings can have their uses in allowing students to report truly bad instructors, but small distinctions in the numbers on a five or seven point scale don't add up to much, it seems to me. And yet the numbers, because of their concreteness and specificity, are increasingly important in decisions about tenure, promotion, and merit.

The gradual encouragement by college and university administrators to convert colleges education to a customer model has had deeply degenerative effects on the relations between professors and students. A year or two ago, one student told me, in class, that the matter of attendance and even the question of whether to submit a particular assignment should be left to the student, since students were paying so much for their educations.