Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Many of my good friends and esteemed colleagues at TAMIU often lament the absence of what we might call “Anglo culture” in Laredo. No less a figure than our university’s president has recently spoken of this problem, stating ”[i]n that most universal of all media, radio, Laredo today has no station which connects us… to our national dialogue.”

Yet I wonder if the real solution for this problem lies in bringing NPR to Laredo. I have no doubt that my colleagues would enjoy listening to All Things Considered, and some bright, motivated teenagers might enjoy it as well, but the bulk of public radio programming is not of regular interest to most Americans, particularly young people.

Rather, there is a far more pressing absence from our local airwaves: PBS television. PBS may be available on cable and satellite, but much of our population—particularly those most in need of English-language programming aimed at young people, like Sesame Street—cannot afford those sources of programming (and PBS is unavailable at all to people in Nuevo Laredo, who comprise the majority of the population of our metropolitan area). I know that several years ago KLRN, San Antonio’s public broadcasting channel, applied for a permit to construct a retransmitter of its broadcasts in this area, but apparently nothing came of that.

But due to the advent of digital television, there is a low-cost solution: including PBS programming on a subchannel of an existing digital broadcaster. With the exception of KLDO and KGNS, the remaining local digital television stations (both in Mexico and the United States) are only providing one channel of television in their digital allotment, even though at least four standard definition (non-HDTV) channels can be carried on a digital channel (even with HDTV programming on the channel, one SD subchannel could be carried with little loss of quality—KGNS is currently carrying two, with noticeable problems on its main feed during some broadcasts). No federal permits need to be applied for; all it would take is an agreement between a local station and KLRN to retransmit their programming, and for the local station to receive the programming from San Antonio via microwave or satellite transmission (which is already being done to supply Time-Warner Cable and DirecTV and Dish Network subscribers with KLRN), and adapt its existing digital television encoder to multiplex the KLRN signal as well.

Realistically, young people in Laredo who need to be exposed to standard American English, including the wealth of childrens’s programming available on PBS, and the culture of the United States outside our community—and our friends in Mexico as well, who may not be familiar with what American society is like beyond brief visits to the border zone—are much more likely to benefit from television broadcasts than radio. And while I do not seek to discourage those who seek to bring NPR to Laredo, we can get PBS here and on the air at much lower expense with the cooperation of a local digital broadcaster like KVTV, XHBR, XHLNA, or XHLAT.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Extrapolate this

It took me two years to finally get back to it, but the paper from my 2007 PolMeth poster is reasonably close to done after throwing out virtually everything I did for the previous iteration of the research. Now on to the year-old projects.

Monday, 17 August 2009

KBH running for GOV

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has officially launched her campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination against incumbent Rick Perry. Given the general disarray of the statewide Democratic Party, this one may be for all the marbles.

þ: Texas native-in-exile Steven Taylor.

More on office hours

Revisiting a theme from a few weeks ago, Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time ponders the merits of office hours, concluding thusly:

I say that we need to take another look at “office hours.” What do they mean? What are they supposed to achieve? If we are achieving those goals outside of a clearly stated four hours on the syllabus, that doesn’t mean that those efforts should be ignored.

Another serendipitous event—the arrival of a page of boilerplate “policies” to stick in my syllabi, much different from the boilerplate “policies” that I was told to insert last year and modified (apparently) without any input from the faculty—has also helped clarify some of my thinking about office hours.

I strongly believe (and this has been reinforced by discussions with colleagues) that many of said policies, including office hours, exist largely as a punishment for the perceived misbehavior of certain faculty members past and present. Rather than the dean or provost taking said faculty aside and saying “cut it out and behave like a professional adult,” the preferred solution is instead to impose a policy on everyone regardless of their past miscreant behavior, knowing full-well that the miscreants will just misbehave (albeit within the new, arbitrary rules) in the future anyway.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Counterintuitive finding of the day

Andrew Gelman shows 2008 figures that indicate that there is virtually no relationship between income and self-reported ideology in the U.S. electorate.

This finding is subject to the usual caveats: namely, that everyone thinks they’re moderate, that most people really don’t think about politics in ideological terms (at least in the broad categories of “liberal” and “conservative”), and that these ideological terms themselves are fuzzy categories capturing multiple underlying political orientations to begin with. But at first blush it does contradict the accepted wisdom.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Myth versus reality

This evening’s exercise in compare and contrast.

The textbook public policy process (seriously, whip open any book with "Public Policy" in the title, or any college intro to American government text that covers policy, and you'll see this or a paraphrase):

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Propose alternative solutions.
  3. Promulgate some specific solution as law.
  4. Implement the solution.
  5. Figure out if it works. Rinse and repeat if necessary.

The health care reform process thus far:

  1. The problem is defined, sort of. “Health care is broken and/or really expensive.” I mean, seriously, nobody has even defined the problem in any more specific way that remotely relates to the bills being proposed. Textbook stage 1 problem statements would resemble “Americans have to fill out ridiculous amounts of paperwork every time they get within 300 feet of a doctor” or “People treat emergency rooms like places they should go when there isn’t an actual emergency situation.”
  2. Instead of considering policy alternatives, throw a lot of stuff that is largely unrelated except having something to do with “health care” into a giant, opaque bill. Actually, several of them. Several of which manage to solve problems that nobody has identified, like “older Americans will be forced to see a counselor every five years so they can have a depressing conversation about dying” without giving an explanation of either how this is a good idea or how it saves anyone money. Although it does solve the problem “how can various rent-seeking groups get all of the population to use their services on a regular basis?” which isn’t really a health care problem, but I digress.
  3. Yell and scream a lot about how everyone is trying to murder their political opponents, old people, and/or key Democratic voting blocs, and particularly about how people are being unpatriotic by yelling and screaming at each other.

Thus, I conclude that the policy process model is actually prescriptive, not descriptive. No wonder nobody asked me to teach policy again in the fall. (I lack faith that stages 4 and 5 will correspond to the official versions either, should we see those.)

Chris’s probably silly (and completely non-libertarian, which is an under-appreciated asset for potential policy solutions in D.C.) health care plan:

  • Allow anyone who wants it to be covered by Medicaid. Make everyone over the current Medicaid eligibility thresholds who chooses to enroll pay for it using some formula scribbled in the margins of a draft copy of this post. Every time someone who doesn’t have insurance shows up at an emergency room, they get a stern talking to about signing up for Medicaid or something else while they’re sitting on their butt anyway during triage. People who do this for minor ailments get the stern talking to several times before they are seen so they get the point, and a brochure stapled to the crap they leave with. People who continue to show up without insurance for minor ailments get escalated to meet Mike Tyson and then receive immediate treatment (for Tyson, not the minor ailments).
  • Allow anyone who loses his or her job to buy into COBRA until becoming employed by an employer offering health care or becoming eligible for public assistance through Medic*. Throw money at people receiving unemployment benefits to buy in.

Voila. Everyone who wants it can now afford insurance and has access to it. That was two paragraphs. We can put that in legislature-ese and make that a 30-page bill. The rest of the nonsense is about “cost control” which isn’t going to happen in practice, since we can’t compare costs to counterfactual reality (the world without “cost control” or other worlds with different “cost control”). This crap is going to be ridiculously expensive no matter what, and whatever costs we might be able to control (doctors using two little band-aids instead of one big one, prescribing the Really Awesome Cholesterol Drug instead of the Not Quite So Awesome Cholesterol Drug That Doesn’t Work But Is Cheaper In Theory, throwing people in the Really Fancy Scanner rather than just having them sit on some film and swallow some U-238) are rounding errors in that.

Besides, Hugo’s paying so who cares?

Thursday, 6 August 2009


While I can’t say I agree much more with her politics “judicial philosophies” than those of the man who nominated her, nonetheless congratulations are in order for Sonia Sotomayor becoming the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. All I can hope is that in what are likely to be many years on the court that she will come to understand that her job is not to promote a particular party’s political agenda, but instead to act as a bulwark against executive and bureaucratic excess and majoritarian zeal in Congress and the states in the fine, but somewhat spotty, tradition of her best predecessors on that bench.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Teaching is a repeated game

John Sides and Inside Higher Ed today discuss a rather, er, innovative approach to grading classroom assessment (gotta go with the Newspeak term)—essentially, rewarding effort, consistent participation, and de minimis competence, and having students be the judge of said de minimis competence.

I have a couple of reactions: first, while this might work with a student body as generally overachieving as Duke’s, I shudder to think what would happen if I handed over control of my gradebook to the median student in my current general education summer classes, who can be best characterized as mildly disinterested in the material at hand. (I can’t say I blame them on this score, either. I hardly was thrilled by gen ed in my undergrad days, even if some of the classes turned out more interesting than I had expected.)

The second problem is located by a professor commenting at IHE who tried something very similar and found it did not survive repeated contact with the student body at my graduate alma mater:

I tried this for several years in the mid-nineties. I found it worked wonderfully—the first time I tried it. The students worked much harder than they ever would have for a grade, and enjoyed the learning experience more, and told me later it was the best class they took in college. But the next semester it worked worse, and it kept working worse and worse for the three or so years I used the system. I kept tweaking it, trying to find a way to restore its original success; but no luck.

I finally realized what was going on: word was out that my class was an “easy A,” and it was attracting all the laziest students. I invariably had one or two motivated students who were there for the novel learning experience, and then a whole slew of slackers who wanted to coast. ...

My project was an overidealistic one, I finally realized (and, gritting my teeth, went back to more traditional grading): I wanted to RELEASE my students’ “natural” love of learning from the bonds in which they had been encased by fourteen or fifteen years of grade-slavery. I love to learn; hence, a love of learning is “natural”; hence, grade-based opportunism is artificial; a conditioned jail; hence, my students need to be liberated from their jails. I realized at some point that my project was actually one of reconditioning my students to be more like me—and that, while it did work in some cases, not only was a semester not a long enough reconditioning period, but the project itself was suspect.

There are some more positive reactions, including one quoted by the author of the IHE piece that… well, you be the judge:

I’ve done something like this with my big undergrad class, ‘Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality in US History,’ for years now. They do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege love it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all.

Once one starts using terms like “students with[] previous educational privilege” to refer to students who complete the required readings, who have bothered to learn the rudiments of writing clear, coherent prose, and who exceed the bare minimum standards one’s TA is enforcing, one may have lost the plot entirely.

Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that the true motivation here lies less in “liberating” students from the yoke of grades (or at least bad grades) than it does in liberating faculty from their own responsibilities to sit in judgment of their students’ work, with all of the potential hard feelings that said responsibility entails. I suppose this is the natural consequence of faculty already abdicating their responsibilities to conduct classes small enough to interact with students—enter the “discussion section,” and your cadre of TAs brought in with little prospect of future employment beyond the fast food industry to keep the students happy while you blog your New Age theories of pedagogy do research. Once you’ve collectively decided you no longer give a damn about teaching, I suppose it’s a very short walk to ceasing to give a shit about assessing student learning either.