Thursday, 11 March 2004

They, he, or she?

Will Baude has received a fair amount of feedback on his advocacy of “they” as a singular pronoun. I am overall, sympathetic, to Baude’s plight, and certainly prefer a singular “they” over such awkward PCisms as “he or she.” French, alas, has a decent third-preson genderless singular, on, and I am somewhat partial to “one” as a substitute for it—particularly as a substitute for the oft-colloquial “you” in hypotheticals and the like. Unfortunately, “one” is a bit pretentious for everyday speech. If we must move to gender-neutral language—a need that, frankly, is lost on me—“they” is infinitely preferable to “he or she,” although “one” is reasonable as well.

My general policy in academic writing is one I picked up from a book on voting behavior (I honestly don’t remember which; it may be Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion): I tend to use female pronouns for citizens and voters and male pronouns for politicians, reflecting the empirical preponderence of both.

My policy as a grader, however, is most agnostic. I do not insist on the use of gender-neutral language, as some of my own professors did when I was an undergraduate. In general, I prefer clarity of expression over form; the ultimate test of good writing is not whether or not it conforms to a particular style, but whether or not it communicates ideas successfully. “Standard written English” is a standard largely because of the latter, and, while I will correct awkward locutions, I do not insist on precise conformity with a stylebook, as such requirements can be counterproductive to the essayist’s central goal of clear, efficient communication.

Terrorist scum

Matt Stinson has the analysis, Dean Esmay has the gut-level reaction, and Jeff Jarvis continues his over-the-top schtick he’s been working on with the Howard Stern business.

Write-in campaign

Amanda is throwing her hat in the ring. I guess the question is: are we supposed to write “Hot Abercrombie Chick!” on the ballot? That seems vaguely embarrassing, although probably less so than voting for Nader…

Virginity pledges not kept; news at 11

James Joyner links this NYT piece with the snarky comment:

I await the study that investigates New Years resolutions.

I tend to agree with commenter “steve,” who writes:

Too bad there are some in this country who want to make so called virginity pledges part of serious public policy. When serious people call for new years resolutions in order to solve serious socail [sic] problems your point will stand.

But I think there’s an interesting question here: why aren’t many of the pledges kept? I suspect it has to do with peer pressure: students who don’t sincerely want to make virginity pledges are pressured into them by religious groups they are affiliated with, parents, or friends. And, in general, people don’t keep pledges when there’s no effective sanctioning mechanism to ensure fealty to them; unless you’re female and get knocked up, nobody’s going to know whether or not you actually kept a virginity pledge.

That said, one other part of the study, as reported in USA Today, seemed a bit puzzling:

The study also found that in communities where at least 20% of adolescents pledged the STD rates for everyone combined was 8.9%. In communities with less than 7% pledgers, the STD rate was 5.5%.

Not only is this a massive ecological inference problem (there’s absolutely no way to show causality here), the causal mechanism doesn’t even function right: adolescents are a relatively small part of the population, dwarfed by the sexually active adult population. Nor is there any test of whether the pledge rate affects STD rates over time—which at least might get at the question of whether pledges have some aggregate effect on STD incidence. Most odd.

Anyway, I tend to agree with critics that government-led efforts to encourage abstinence—a cornerstone of both the Bush and Clinton administrations’ “sex ed” policy*—are likely to be completely ineffective, if not counterproductive, in reducing teen pregnancy and STD transmission. The feds should find something better to waste our money on instead…

USM Day 4: From bad to worse

Events are now on an inevitable collision course down in Hattiesburg. Today’s developments:

  • The Hattiesburg American interviews University of Southern Mississippi president Shelby Thames. Thames did not back off his assertions that the AAUP was a union or his criticism of history professor Doug Chambers for allegedly cancelling class in response to Thames’ actions.
  • Thames also went after the president of the USM faculty senate today, accusing him of hypocrisy.
  • Thames suggests that criminal charges may be in the offing against fired professors Glasmer and Stringer. The professors deny they engaged in any illegal or unethical conduct.
  • 69% of USM faculty voted on the no confidence motion; 64% of the entire faculty (including those who didn’t vote) voted in favor of the no confidence motion.
  • USM provost Tim Hudson says he’s not stepping down, despite disagreeing with Thames’ actions in the case.
  • Thames will not resign in the face of the overwhelming no confidence vote.