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Jeff on Deletion Policy

In our can’t-end-too-soon discussion of deletion policy at EphBlog, Jeff makes a critical point.

There are two types of bouncers. There is the big, scary dude in a biker jacket who curses at everyone, keeps people he has personal gripes with out of the bar for no good reason, and tries to be intimidating by virtue of his girth. And then, there is Patrick Swayze in “Roadhouse.” If you want to be a bouncer that makes Ephblog a better place, rather than the petulant bitch fest it often turns into, I suggest you forego the prior model of bouncer-dom, and BLS (be like Swayze).

I apologize for my seeming inability to cease my involvement in this idiotic discussion. But I felt that my Swayze epiphany warranted sharing.

Indeed! Surely this is the Eph-epiphany of the month. Consider:

New EphBlog motto: Where no one is too stupid to have a good time!

Swayze-aficionados will recall that the Dalton character was a philosophy major. Alas, he attended NYU and not Williams, although, if memory serves, Professor Alan White ran his 300-level seminars in a similar fashion. Perhaps this was what he meant that time in PHIL 308: After Philosophy in the spring of 1988.

[Insert Ken Thomas lecture (in German!) about After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.]

PS. And, obviously, one sign that you are a great professor is that your students remember your classes more than 20 years later . . .

PPS. Post edited by request.


Genuine Information

Professor Alan White had this interesting comment on my proposal to make student course ratings public, either for all faculty or for certain subsets (i.e., tenured, highest rated).

I take there to be (at least) two statistical-significance issues relevant to the question of whether, particularly at small liberal-arts colleges like Williams, evaluations should be made public. One is that enrollments in at least many and perhaps (I don’t know) the majority of courses taught at Williams are low enough that (we’re told by our statistician) the results of the evaluations aren’t statistically significant (my recollection is that statistical significance requires N greater than 20; all of our writing-intensive courses, all of our tutorials, and almost all courses taught in my department are smaller than that). A second is that it can be and has not infrequently been the case that scores can fall in the second quintile or the fourth quintile without their differences from the mean being statistically significant (this can also happen with first- and fifth-quintile scores, though I have no clear recollections of having seen that happen).

I don’t think that your statistician (Chris Winters? Dick De Veaux?) has made himself correctly understood.

First, statistical significance is poor guide here. The issue is not: Does a t-test reject the null hypothesis at the 5% level of significance that student satisfaction with course X is the same as student satisfaction with course Y? The issue is: Does having access to student class ratings help students to pick between course X and Y? The answer to the first question does depend on sample size and is influenced by the narrow range of scores typically awarded. The answer to the second question is Yes, for almost any sample size. More data leads to better decisions even if that data is not statistical significant. (If that isn’t obvious, I can elaborate in the comments.)

Second, even if the numbers for a single question are not statistically significant, there are multiple dimensions on which students rate classes/professors. A class that gets 4s from most students in one category may not be significantly different than a class that gets 3s. But if the first class gets 4s in every category then the increase in N will probably reject the null hypothesis.

Third, even if you want to focus on a single measure, we have data for multiple classes and multiple years for the same professor (and multiple professors over multiple years for the same class). Consider Professor Sam Crane. Imagine that he gets high rating for a single small seminar. That, alone might not tell us much. But we should also have data for Sam from other classes and for other years. With this information (and assuming that it shows high marks across the board, as I bet it does), we can be fairly certain that Sam will receive excellent ratings in his small seminar next semester.

So (I take it): much of the “data,” including almost all relating to my own department, is essentially junk.

Totally false. And, in fact, I can prove it. Give me the data for your department for the last 5 years (even with the professor and class names anonymized) and I can make a simple statistical model which will predict, out of sample, what ratings the students will hand out next week. Now, of course, my estimates will have confidence intervals and some will be wrong. But, for what I know about the literature on this topic, professors/classes with high ratings in the past generate, on average, high ratings in the future.

If that’s correct, and if it is also correct (as I take it to be) that Williams professors work hard to teach well and regularly succeed in doing so, then I do not see how students would benefit by having access to the evaluations.

There are plausible reasons for not making this data public. It might not lead professors to change their behavior. (Laszlo Versenyi told us that he didn’t hand out course evaluation forms because doing do just frustrated him and the students.) It would probably make low scoring professors feel bad. It could lead to unhelpful scheduling problems as students made more of an effort (than they do already) to avoid low scoring professors.

But there is no doubt that students could use this information to select classes/professors that they would, at the end of the semester, rate more highly.

I would deem it unfortunate if a student drawn to the subject matter of a given course chose not to take that course because statistically insignificant evaluation results made it appear that the course was somehow mediocre — perhaps because it appeared to be of no more than average quality at Williams, but even if it appeared to be below average. Bottom line: it makes no sense to present pseudoinformation as though it were genuine information.

Again, this is not “pseudoinformation” and anyone who tells you this is misleading you. As a rule of thumb, Williams students are smart and use information wisely, especially if that information is packaged/explained appropriately.

Best plan: Try it out for a year. Restrict the data to just tenured professors and/or the top 25%. What’s the worse that could happen? The, after a year, re-evaluate. Prediction: The plan will work and be highly popular among students.

The more transparent that Williams becomes, the better an education its students will receive.


White on the Introduction

Professor Alan White provides this discussion of the Introduction (pdf) for Education’s End by Anthony Kronman ’68. Today is the first meeting of our CGCL. The next meeting will be Thursday. Let the conversation begin!

I suggest the following questions for the ephblog discussion of Kronman’s Introduction:

(1) Must life have a meaning? Or might it be that life has no meaning, but lives can and perhaps even must have meanings?

(2) What could it mean to lead “a life with no meaning at all” (3)?

(3) Does living a meaningful life presuppose that there be an answer to “the question what living is for”?

(4) Assume that I am among the “people [who] make discoveries that help them to say, ‘My life has a value I recognize and cherish’” (6); does it follow that my life is meaningful, in any important sense?

(5) Assume that life has no meaning; does it follow that it is not worth living?

(6) Was the question of life’s meaning once central to the humanities? What evidence supports the thesis that it once was?

(7) What are “the humanities”?

At Williams, we don’t have them. Our divisions are I. Literature and the Arts, II. Social Studies, and III. Science and Mathematics. Somewhat paradoxically, we classify Political Science and Cognitive Science as Social Studies, and Maritime Studies and Environmental Studies under Science and Mathematics (that we have Social Studies, plural, but Science, singular, is also interesting – as is the fact that Math isn’t a science, but Computer Science is). When I was an undergrad at Tulane, Math was in the Humanities division. (For the basis of an argument that philosophy, as the universal science, has a transdivisional status, see here.)

(7) What does it mean to have the “authority to lead the search for an answer to the question of life’s purpose and value” (8)? Is this the same “authority” that “our churches now monopolize” (7)? If not, how do the two differ?

(8) Are great philosophical works best described as “great works of … philosophical imagination” (6)? Are there no great works of philosophical reason – or, if there are, are they less deserving of “careful but critical reading”?

(9) Should “the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination” be restricted to those works “that we have inherited from the past”? If so, how old should works have to be in order to qualify as “past”?

Thanks to Professor White for this contribution.


1) The Introduction (linked to above) provides a good overview of Kronman’s argument. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, you will find those 8 pages interesting, not least for their specific mentions of Williams. Perhaps an even better overview of the book is this interview with Kronman.

2) My initial thoughts, based on just the publishers description, are here.


Sign This

Professor Alan White had these thoughts on last spring’s graduation.

Thanks for the note, Dave, and for letting me know about it. Just
before heading to graduation Sunday, I mentioned to Jane what a key
part of the ceremony I take that to be. My suspicion is that even
those grads who know it’s coming are moved by it more than they’d

Clever opening by the class speaker: he looks to the woman signing his speech, then to the audience, says, “So, want to see how to sign some dirty words? Sorry, I’m not that big of an asshole.”

Good to know. I still think that the Class and PBK speakers should be chosen via audition to a mostly student-selection committee, but perhaps the current process works well enough.



Neal Hannan ’03 notes that the New York Times article on faculty evaluations mentioned Williams.

In the never-ending power struggle between teachers and students, there have been a few seminal events: the first pop quiz, the first tack on the chair, the first student-written faculty evaluation and the first snarky comment on

In 2002, Williams students started their own, Factrak, which only they have access to, a restriction intended to increase the chances that reviewers actually went to the classes they’re reviewing. Williams professors, however, are no less divided about it. ”In a certain sense I’m more uneasy,” says Alan White, a philosophy professor whose reviews are mixed. ”Ratemyprofessor,” he says, ”looks less like good information because students know the various ways it can be abused, whereas Factrak can look like better information precisely because of that limitation.” No matter how small the pool, he adds, an evaluation without knowledge of the evaluator’s tastes and experiences is useless.

False! All information is potentially valuable. The great thing about Factrak, which I have never seen, is that all the comments come from Williams students. Nothing ensures such control at and similar sites. Williams students know a great deal about their peers and so can use the information presented to good effect. Diana Davis ’07 writes:

I’ve decided not to sign up for Econ 251 in the fall so as to have the prerequisite for Morty’s tutorial in the spring, because the factrak reviews for both professors teaching the course are terrible.

In White’s view, Diana is stupid to rely on such “useless” information, especially since she is a senior and has learned, White hopes, that “an evaluation without knowledge of the evaluator’s tastes and experiences” does not improve course selection.

In truth, Diana (like hundreds of her peers) uses Factrak precisely because it is so useful. Comments:

1) It would be nice if alumni could read and add comments to Factrak. My opinion of some courses changed in the years after graduation.

2) Why aren’t Factrak’s usage statistics public? Enquiring minds would like to know how many entries there are for each professor/class, how many entries have been added this year, how many entries were checked in the weeks around registration and so on.

3) Perhaps it is time to revisit the status of Factrak at Williams. In particular, I think that the information in Factrak should be public, perhaps even included in Willipedia. (Exceptions could easily be made for faculty in their first year, untenured faculty and so on.)

4) One of the reasons that advising at Williams is sub-optimal is that much of the necessary information is hidden away, inaccessible unless you know what you are looking for. The more open the information is, the more useful that it will become.


Goforth and Kant

Many undergraduates are studying hard for finals. Should they be? Reasonable Ephs may differ. I think that, instead, they ought to stay up all night trying to prove Kant’s categorical imperative.

That’s what I was doing 20 years ago. Actually, the above scribbling is by Chuck Goforth ’87, a frequent visitor to my junior year suite in Carter House. (Click for a larger image.) Outside of love notes to my then-girl-friend-now-wife, this is the piece of paper I treasure most from Williams.

For some reason, we had gotten into a debate about whether or not a failure to choose was immoral. Having been taught my philosophy by folks like Alan White and Laszlo Vernsenyi, I was fairly certain that Chuck couldn’t prove this, but it was endlessly fun to watch him try. We must have spent 8 hours on the topic, time that I “should have” spent studying for my Money and Banking final. Yet I argued instead of studying, talked instead of sleeping. Even then it was obvious that no one would ever really care whether I got an A or a B in ECON 367.

So, young Ephs in Williamstown, spend tonight talking with your friends, arguing about the politics of today or the philosophical debates of yesteryear. In a few short years you will find that, sadly, no one wants to stay up all night talking the deep talk anymore. Embrace the opportunities that you have right now.

Studying is overrated. Try proving the categorical imperative yourself.


White-Nicholls-White ’04-White ’08 Holiday Greetings

Although these pictures our not exactly a holiday card, they do come along with good holiday wishes from Philiosophy Professor Alan White.

Pictured here are his children Nico ’04 and Charlotte ’08 — also known as the “blond beasts” from the acknowledgement in one of his books (this one, I think) — from about the last time that I saw them.

White and his wife Jane Nicholls, director of the parent’s fund at Williams. Students of history may be interested to know that White often dressed this way for class, at least in the 1980’s. I am not sure if he has continued the practice.

Those who observe that my poor efforts here at EphBlog are sloppy and incoherent should take it up with White. He taught me much of what I know of writing and logic. Remember: Never blame the student, always the teacher.


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