Sensational Politics and the University

Today while bopping about the interwebs, I came across the following article about a Stanford student who was pressing charges for an altercation at a political event for Brett Kavanaugh.

News video/summary here:

Hopefully, that shows up correctly…

Anyhoo, what basically happened was that the campus Republicans were tabling somewhere on Stanford’s campus to support Kavanaugh. Other students were complaining/arguing/ vandalizing them. At one point Melinda Hernandez pushed/touched John Rice-Cameron, president of the campus’s chapter of the College Republicans. This then escalated to the police being called in, and Hernandez receiving a citation. Rice-Cameron wants to push charges. Some accounts say that Hernandez basically tried to push down Rice-Cameron’s phone because he was filming her without consent and would not stop. Some accounts say that the tabling group likes to entice these kinds of altercations. But none of that is super relevant or factual. Yet, they put a spin on the situation. The facts get twisted by our opinions of “well if they were asking for it…they can hardly press charges,” and “he was just using his right to free speech!” And so on.

No matter your politics, I think we can agree on two things. 1) College campuses should be a place for freedom of self, speech, thought, expression, etc. and 2) violence (no matter how small) should not have a place on a college campus. The problem is that we currently have a dichotomy of thought, and not much of a spectrum on many issues. To add to this, both sides want to prove they are right in any way possible, often by discrediting the other side instead of building up their own. It’s pretty easy to rile someone up about something they really dislike, and it’s also especially difficult to walk away when you feel obligated to defend an idea that is so deeply emotional. Using this as a weapon allows you to say “Look! They can’t even think straight! They resorted primitive violence! Clearly, I’m right, because I don’t need violence!” It’s a dirty trick but it’s a common trick. Look at the Kavanaugh hearing. There was no evidence in that incident. No investigation for truth and facts. It was a pure she said, he said. Both sides used emotion and storytelling. Nothing either one of them said could be verified, but that’s how we chose a Supreme Court Justice…

Now, where am I going with this? The Stanford incident happened at a university, a haven of free thought. Stanford has every responsibility to defend and even encourage the campus Republicans to share their ideas with the greater community. However, I think the university also has a responsibility to teach them how to do so in a constructive manner. When tensions are as high as they currently are, I think it’s important for universities to remind people how to speak with one another, as humans. Both sides see the other as an enemy, as competition, as morally repugnant. But we are all humans, and all need love, support, shelter, etc. The media clearly isn’t about to step in and diffuse the situation, because sensationalism sells. So at some point, I think Universities need to step up, inform the public, and remind the media that facts are important too.

Open Access: Polymers

Open access is a funny thing. To me it seems silly that we want to research things for the greater good of society and industry, yet for anyone to read our stuff they need to pay gobs of money. Paywalls can make our research practically unheard of and therefore useless. Sure, some newspapers and the like may pay for access, then “translate” our jargon into words that are more palatable for the average consumer. But often things get lost in translation. For this reason, it is critical that average people have access to the research that their taxes pay for. It gives them a chance to read directly from the source with minimal chance of misinformation or “dumbing-down”. The problem is that most people know of Nature or Science, but free and open access journals are largely unknown. This is probably a result of open access being relatively new, but it makes it difficult for people to know where to look if they want certain information. Google helps, but I don’t believe there’s an open-access only option to remove the frustration of consistently ramming into paywalls. Anyway…let’s go find an open access journal…

“Polymers (ISSN 2073-4360) is an international open access
journal of polymer science. It publishes research papers,
communications and review articles. Polymers provides
an interdisciplinary forum for publishing papers which
advance the fields of (i) polymerization methods, (ii) theory,
simulation, and modeling, (iii) understanding of new
physical phenomena, (iv) advances in characterization
techniques, and (v) harnessing of self-assembly and
biological strategies for producing complex multifunctional

When looking for an open access journal, I realized that all of the journals that come to mind for my field are not open-access. I could think of PLOS one and some others that were more relevant to my bioengineering days, but not much for polymers/macromolecules/plastics. But alas, a touch of google and here we are, Polymers. This is a relatively new journal, started in 2009, and headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. The Belgium Polymer Group is a publication partner and is composed of various industries and universities in the area surrounding Basel.

Polymers has an impact factor of 2.935, which trails well behind the 40.137 of Nature, but it beats PLOS One’s  2.766. Many would argue that the impact factor is roughly meaningless and implies more about the breadth of readership and less about the quality of the publication, but this is still something to compare with. This brings about the first thoughts on open access journals: they’re newer and generally less established. This doesn’t mean they are bad, but means during this growth stage, they may not be the best option for new researchers trying to get noticed.

Polymers promises “unlimited and free access for readers” as well as “reliable service” and a 37-day turn around time for publications. Not bad. Costs are flexible, depending on what authors can pay, so long as the quality of the publication is decent. As an added bonus, the articles appear to be exclusively online, so there is no added cost for color figures. Submission is free, so you don’t waste any money just to get rejected. I’d say this pricing structure exemplifies the open access idea because it is both accessible to readers that may not have subscriptions and also reasonable for authors to submit their work. This is truly what is needed for knowledge to be spread and disseminated.


Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Quizzes and Quizlet

I found the article ” What a Controversy Over an App Tells Us About How Students Learn Now” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This piece focuses on a university case where students were accused of cheating for using the app Quizlet to study for an exam. For those that aren’t familiar, Quizlet allows users to upload questions and answers in a flashcards style for people to study. The idea is that if you have a big exam, instead of writing down all the flashcards and inevitably dropping them a few times during transport, you can swipe through these ones online. There are often times when there are questions that you would have missed when making your own cards, and it can be really great to see what others think is important to study. I believe the site Koofers has a similar functionality and is more common here at VT. The argument made against both Quizlet and Koofers is that people can upload test questions that are currently being used by professors, so students on these sites are effectively seeing exams ahead of time.

Some professors/institutes have reacted by trying to ban the use of such resources by their classes. I know I have seen at least two syllabi here that have specifically denounced the use of Koofers at VT. What’s interesting here is that there is no way, short of restricted internet usage, for universities to enforce this. They are relying on students’ honesty to not use the resources online. But the students who would follow such guidelines are also the ones that are less likely to try to cheat anyway.

I have always taken issue with this stance. We live in a connected global society with all the resources of the world effectively at our fingertips. One quote from the article that reminds me far too much of middle school:

“Robin DeRosa, an interdisciplinary-studies professor at Plymouth State University, used to motivate her students to learn math by warning them that they wouldn’t always have a calculator available. But with smart phones in their pockets now, students rarely encounter such constraints.”

If I’m working in the lab, it may be faster to do the math in my head, but if I’m really in doubt, I will almost always have my phone nearby to reassure me. There will be few times when I can’t google some basic facts online. If I need to know how Infrared Spectroscopy works, I’m about a 5 min YouTube video away from understanding it better than most students who just learned about it for a week of class. To try to pretend students won’t have this access when faced with “real-world” problems is short-sighted.  Students should learn to access these resources, not ignore them.

“It’s about authentic demonstrations that are externally facing so students can be part of this data-rich environment,” [Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment] said, “and about how we’re helping each other collectively to move us from a ‘gotcha’ assessment to creating a developmental learning experience. It’s a different teaching-learning mentality.”

An argument can be made that I have an unfair advantage over someone who doesn’t know about Quizlet or Koofers, but that could be solved by introducing students to the item as a learning tool. If everyone has access and knowledge of the same tools, there’s no unfair advantage. However, I would argue in today’s society, we all have roughly equal access (at least at a given institution), and the real learning skill is to find and evaluate information based on those resources.  No one is going to ban Yahoo Answers (is this even still a thing?) but most people aren’t going to trust it over other sources like Wikipedia, a textbook, or journal article. If you go to Yahoo over the others, that’s your choice, and probably your failure to learn from. Just because I’m scoffing at it, doesn’t mean the person who uses it has an advantage over me, I accept that I’m using a different toolset and would not ask theirs to be limited.

“There are times when students do need to know factual information, fundamental knowledge from a given field, etc.,” she said in an email. “But how do we assess their understanding of that knowledge? If the answer is a multiple choice and/or fill-in-the-blank exam, how much does it matter that students can recall that knowledge offhand?”

Great minds think alike…unfortunately

In class this past week, someone mentioned Walter Lewin, a renowned MIT astrophysicists known for giving tremendous lectures. The description reminded of Richard Feynman, another physicist known for tremendous teaching chops. Both of these professors are well renowned and honored for successfully communicating science to broad audiences and making tremendous discoveries. Feynman was famous for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) and his Nobel Prize. Lewin discovered rotating neutron stars with balloons. Both men were clearly brilliant in their own right and provided tremendous insight into the scientific world in ways most lecturers could not.

Here’s the problem though: both have also had some serious claims of sexual harassment and sexist behavior. In “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” there is a chapter dedicated to Feynman recounting how he literally TRAINED himself to disrespect women so he could sleep with them. The best summary of this that I’ve seen is here, on the blog Restructure!. Which to quote a quote:

Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.

That’s Feynman’s own words, in what’s basically an autobiography. Not the best look.

Similarly, Lewin was accused of sexual harassment through his online courses, and MIT took away his emeritus status and took down his lectures. I can’t find much info on what he actually did, but that hardly matters. He was a brilliant man that preyed on women.

In a similar vein, James Watson of DNA-fame has also displayed horribly racist and demeaning things. The man is brilliant for helping discover DNA and for helping found the human genome project and such, but even his disrespect for Rosalind Franklin and her research which he stole shows a poor attitude.

My question is: should we revere these men? Should we use their lectures and their notes to teach? 

On the one hand, they’ve still made valuable discoveries and have revealed tremendous methods of teaching. They still have the potential to teach many generations and inspire awe in countless future scientists. On the other, they’ve held some pretty shady views that muck up their legacies. Placing them on a pedestal also places their misdeeds on that same pedestal. This seems like a dangerous game; we don’t want to encourage more bigotry in science and education. But again, they were amazing at providing explanations in ways that people could understand complex ideas. It would be a tragedy to lose that. Do we use their teaching examples and point out their imperfections to say “you can be better”? I don’t know. I hate to waste a brilliant idea, but I’d also hate to encourage any form of bigotry and discrimination.


What are your thoughts? Did you know about these case? Do you know about others? If anyone has examples of the opposite, of brilliant minds that defended minorities or stood up against harassment, please share them.