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Reische on Dumb Mistakes, 4

Jim Reische, Director of Communications at Williams and friend-of-EphBlog, wrote a lovely New York Times essay titled “The Importance of Dumb Mistakes in College.” Let’s unpack it for a week. Day 4.

If a Williams student spray-painted “Corporate Deathburgers” on a local building today (not that they ever would), it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone posting the security footage online.

Why the hypothetical? Williams has, in fact, had several graffiti incidents over the last few years, the latest being Griffin Hall. Was any security video ever published? No! Why can’t Reische discuss things that actually happened, at Williams or elsewhere?

The reality is that things have not really changed in 30+ years, at least when it comes to how powerful institutions (campus security, local cops) protect the powerful (children of the elite). What happened to Reische is, more or less, what happens to current students who commit vandalism for political ends.

And the video would live on: another student weighed down by the detritus of his or her online life.

Note the lack of specific examples. Around 8,000 students have graduated from Williams since EphBlog started. I can not think of a single student whose life is meaningfully “weighed down” by her “online life.” If Reische can’t come up with a single example of the problem, then what is his point?

The point, obviously, is to titillate the readers of the New York Times, many of whom worry about the on-line activities of their children.

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#1 Comment By abl On January 18, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

I can not think of a single student whose life is meaningfully “weighed down” by her “online life.”

Again, why do you think that you would know that a student’s life was meaningfully impacted by her online life? Why do you think Reische would know? This is an entirely unreasonable basis for you to draw inferences about this subject, and an entirely unreasonable basis for you to question Reische’s thesis. (Incidentally, if Reische knew about one such case — and he might — he would undermine the moral thrust of his argument by highlighting it in his piece.)

Here’s the two important questions: (1) have there been any students whose actions, while at Williams, reflected negatively on that student?; and (2) is news of those (negatively reflecting) actions posted anywhere online? I would imagine that the vast majority of students who answer yes to both questions will lose out on at least one desirable job over the course of their careers (and likely many) as a direct result of that online black mark. And neither you nor Reische are at all likely to find out about a single one of these lost opportunities. In fact, it’s unlikely that the students will even find out in most instances — employers generally don’t tell denied applicants things like “you were our first choice but then we googled you and found out about your freshman year graffiti incident at Williams” (it’s obviously not unheard of, but I would wager it only happens a small minority of the time).

As a result, if the answer to both questions above is yes — and I cannot believe that it isn’t for dozens of students/former students — then the set of Williams College individuals impacted by Reische’s concerns is greater than zero. Moreover, Reische is really writing about college students in general. The number of college students nationally who make minor mistakes that are then publicized online (where they remain searchable today) is likely in the hundreds or even thousands per year. As a result, the number of students who are negatively impacted by online press coverage of minor college misdeeds — Reische’s concern — is almost certainly in the hundreds or even thousands per year.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’24 On January 19, 2018 @ 8:34 am

Why do you think Reische would know?

Because this is the central thesis of his article! Reische is making an empirical claim: making “dumb mistakes” today is much more damaging than it was 30 years ago. This claim might be true. It might be false. But it is Reische’s job to provide evidence of this claim. And, since he provides little/no evidence, it is my job to point that out. The burden of proof is on him to make the case. It is not my job to prove/show that nothing has changed since the 80s.

But I do so anyway! I provide links to half a dozen Williams cases are that almost exactly like Reische’s youthful vandalism. I show/suggest that, as best we can tell, Reische, if anything, suffered more than the average Williams student who did something similar today.

#3 Comment By abl On January 19, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

“Why do you think Reische would know?”
Because this is the central thesis of his article!

No it’s not. Actual knowledge, or even the basic knowability, of this information is not any thesis of this article, let alone the central thesis. Whether or not Reische actually knows of specific students hurt in this manner is immaterial to his argument. Similarly, I have not claimed to know of any specific Williams students who were injured in this manner. But that’s fine, because the argument that I’ve been making does not rely in any manner on me being able to list one or more Williams students who have been injured in this manner.

Reische is making an empirical claim: making “dumb mistakes” today is much more damaging than it was 30 years ago.

You’ve repeated this “empirical claim” language again and again. I’m not sure you’re correct, though: Reische’s claim seems to me more theoretical than empirical. That Reische’s argument implies things about the empirical world doesn’t make his argument an empirical argument. He supports his argument with appeals to logic (and common sense and emotion) — and not with numbers. The only plainly empirical claim I see in his argument is that college newspaper circulation was more limited in 1980 than it is today–at least with respect to how easy it is for an off-campus recruiter to read an article from a college newspaper written 2 years before. He doesn’t provide any specific support for that semi-empirical claim, but I don’t think he needs to: do you disagree with this? The rest of his argument follows logically from this reasonable point.

And, since he provides little/no evidence, it is my job to point that out.

Again, Reische’s argument is not of the sort that requires evidentiary support: logic and common sense provide ample support for his point. Also, I have provided evidence to support the central facet of his argument — that you have repeatedly and conveniently overlooked in your zeal to level some half-baked “gotcha” at Reische.

But I do so anyway! I provide links to half a dozen Williams cases are that almost exactly like Reische’s youthful vandalism. I show/suggest that, as best we can tell, Reische, if anything, suffered more than the average Williams student who did something similar today.

Your links obviously prove nothing about Williams students (or other college students) being harmed by internet evidence of their relatively minor mistakes. Nobody–including Reische–is arguing that perpetrators of acts of graffiti who are not caught face greater consequences today than they would have 30 years ago as a result of the internet. (So your links to graffiti incidents for which a perpetrator is not identified are irrelevant.)
And, to the extent that any of your examples do mention a specific student, you’ve provided no evidence to support your belief that the student in question wasn’t injured by the online reporting of his/her college mistake.

In fact, as I’ve previously discussed — and you’ve ignored — many (most? nearly all?) such students will miss out on at least one desirable job opportunity on the sole basis of an internet record of a minor college mistake. In the case of Williams, probably most people are going to be ok and will still end up with a good enough job. But it defies common sense — and is contrary to my fairly significant experience — to claim that negative internet experience has little or no impact on competitive hiring decisions. This is what your argument implies.