Higher ed in America

I spend a lot of time trying to wrap my head around various aspects of the university system in America. I wonder why it’s so expensive compared to universities in other parts of the world, and why amassing huge debt to go to college has become mainstream. I wonder what it is that makes a college education so crucial for success in our society, and whether the one-size-fits-all mentality is misguided. I also wonder what it is about academia that motivates many more people to aspire to a coveted academic position, despite intense competition and dismal forecasts for the future.

There are a number of reasons that the current higher education system in America could use some revamping. One problem that Caitlin Flanagan points out the Atlantic (The Dark Power of Fraternities) is that people expect college to be fun, perhaps the greatest 4 years of their lives. Universities cater to students’ (and parents’) demands for fancy dining and athletic facilities, superb landscaping, and cushy dorms in order to attract more students. In turn, they use those students’ tuitions to enhance their colleges even more, which feeds into a vicious cycle. Although American universities began as places for people devoted to learning, they’re increasingly becoming places for those devoted to partying.

Image: http://elitedaily.com
Image: http://elitedaily.com

Many college-goers aren’t only serious about partying, though. I suspect that most people who go to a traditional college would say that they’re there so they can get a good-paying job after. Isn’t it ironic, then, that those who are most committed to academia and pursue their field most intensely are increasingly finding themselves under- and unemployed? It’s not news to me that landing a tenured faculty position is a feat. However, I recently read an article from Inside Higher Ed by Patrick Iber, (Probably) Refusing to Quit, that really struck me. Iber had a PhD and plenty of accolades in his field, but his academic job-hunting saga suggests that luck and timing might be as important as merit in attaining a faculty position. It’s a bummer that colleges can continue to revamp athletic fields that are fine and build luxury dorms to house more and more students (after all, these are the amenities that convince students to attend), but they don’t seem to be able to spend enough of their budget on hiring people who will contribute expertise and passion to the intellectual environment. These people, it seems, should be the core of the university. Have we lost sight of the purpose of college?

Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science

I recently discovered this Science article: Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science, which reports a study that improved women’s success in a college physics class using a very simple affirmation exercise.

Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/
Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/

There were 339 students in the study (both genders). Half were to write about their own values like friends and family (the values affirmation task), and the other half wrote about other people’s values (the control group). They only did the exercise twice – once at the very beginning of the 15-week course, and once a few weeks into the course, before the midterm.

These graphs show their results:

Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men's scores do not change depending on the group they're in.
Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men’s scores do not change depending on the group they’re in.

Why did the value affirmation task only improve females’ performance? The authors claim that the value affirmation task protected women from the common stereotype that they’re not as competent in STEM fields as men. I guess that would mean that men didn’t improve because they weren’t facing the psychological threat of the stereotype to begin with. It seems to me that the link between a cultural stereotype and writing about one’s own values would be pretty weak – the two seem to be only distantly related, so I’m still skeptical about their explanation.

It also surprises me to see such a difference between women who completed the values affirmation task and those who did not because the control task was actually very similar. The students in this group still wrote about values, but they were someone else’s values instead of their own. The take home message is that resiliency against a stereotype is bolstered only by reflecting on our own values.

These results suggest that a simple task (they only completed the values affirmation writing task twice) can have huge effects on women’s ability to overcome a stereotype (the article also cites other similar studies that have successfully explored a similar task with other populations who are likely to feel burdened by stereotypes). Could a simple psychological intervention really shape the demographics in STEM fields?

Academic Mafia

In academia, most people’s primary goal is to get their work published. Getting published is a start, but getting published in a reputable journal is more important. A journal achieves reputability by publishing papers that are cited often by other papers, since being cited by others is a fairly straightforward suggestion that a paper is meaningful and useful to others. The measure of how often a journal’s papers are cited by others is its impact factor, and it’s a big enough deal to encourage the introduction of some dishonest practices.

This article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic talks about a “citation cartel” that was discovered in Brazil. Brazilian universities were at a crossroads because the impact factor of the journals that their students publish in is crucial in determining the university’s worth in the government’s eyes. Because Brazilian journals are newer and therefore tend to have lower impact factors, much quality Brazilian research is published in foreign journals instead. While the graduate programs look good to the government, it basically means that the commercial benefit of Brazilian scholarship is going to non-Brazilian countries.

Quick fix: Brazilian journals started linking to each other (Meyer writes: “…a lot.”). This made their impact factors rise, and made the journals more appealing to Brazilian students looking to publish. The plan did backfire when Thompson Reuters, the determiner of impact factor, caught them… but it worked for a time.

Image: http://www.bapress.ca/publication.html
Image: http://www.bapress.ca/publication.html

I recently stumbled upon another disheartening story about dishonesty in academia, about a publication by team of chemistry researchers at the University of Zurich. Unfortunately, one of the co-author’s comments to the principal author slipped through the editing cracks and was published. It read: “Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…”

Ahhh, what?!?

Most groundbreaking studies aren’t given too much praise until they’re replicated, so that should help weed out fabricated data. And maybe stories like these in which liars are caught will encourage others not to go to dishonest lengths to achieve… Or maybe these are just unrealistic and naïve hopes I have of keeping the pursuit of knowledge pure. It’s a bummer to hear reminders that dishonesty pervades society, but it seems that academia is not exempt from the much-too-common pursuit of accolades regardless of the cost.


In the past week, I’ve traveled across the country, down the coast, and moved into a new apartment. Suffice to say, I’ve come up with A LOT of questions. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Puns: Are they universal? Some research suggests so. Typically when something is universal, there’s a reason, an advantage that it confers. If puns are universal, why? I spent one day in Sonoma county, and felt like a pun magnet: they were on billboards (Whole Foods urged customers to “eat the food less traveled” [I’m now thinking this is more of a play on words than a pun, but close] and another business boasted about cattle “born and grazed” in Marin County). The wine industry was also ripe with puns (“Another grape day at Cline“; “Wine a bit… you’ll feel better” [outside a restaurant], and the “Grape Escape,” an ad for a store). I also found a few blogs centered on puns- one that plays with movie titles, and another with rappers and cereals.

  • Is your beverage of choice (coffee vs. tea) correlated with your introversion/extroversion style? This Thought Catalog post struck me as comical because of its accuracy, and the differences articulated between the two kinds of drinkers sounds very familiar to those between introverts and extroverts.

    I'm a tea person, all the way.  Image: wikipedia
    I’m a tea person, all the way.
    Image: wikipedia
  • How do undecided freshman choose a major after only 1-2 years? This article suggests that their professors have a huge impact. Is that surprising? Not really, to me. Good teachers make a subject interesting, and an interesting subject makes a major appealing. Even though grad students have more direction at the outset of their programs than undecided freshman, how much of a role do faculty play in determining a grad student’s ultimate path- their dissertation and beyond? My guess: A LOT.

In the spirit of an abundance of questions, I’m off to wirelessly connect my computer to a new printer…

The danger of group consensus

I’m almost finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, a guide to introversion that contradicts society’s emphasis on the extrovert ideal. Aside from the fact that I love the book (review forthcoming), one of the many studies that Cain cites sticks out in my mind. In a chapter titled “When Collaboration Kills Creativity,” she shows that the a group’s output is not always greater than the sum of each individual’s contribution; instead, it can actually be worse than one member alone might achieve.

In the study conducted by Gregory Berns*, in which 32 volunteers were shown 2 different 3D objects and asked to decide whether it would be possible to rotate the first to make it match the second. When they did this task alone, participants gave the wrong answer 13.8% of the time. When they were in a group in which members gave unanimously wrong answers, the individual gave the wrong answer 41% of the time.

This isn’t too surprising, since going against everyone else is likely to cause us to change our minds, assuming that the majority is right. The interesting part of this study comes from the fMRI data obtained while the participants made their decisions. When participants answered the question on their own, their occipital and parietal cortices, areas associated with visual and spatial perception, and the frontal cortex, and area implicated in decision-making, showed most activity. However, when they made their decision as a part of the group, the scans showed more activity in the occipital and parietal cortices and less in the frontal cortex.

The conclusion: group consensus actually changed the participants’ views of the problem. This study suggests that people don’t conform because peer pressure causes them to doubt themselves. Instead, they believe that they independently came up with the same answer put forth by the group, and therefore conform because of the power of suggestion.

This is a little frightening to me. If a group can alter our perception of a problem (and convince us to genuinely believe in an answer that’s incorrect), we should probably question the previously-unquestioned insistence that collaboration is the key to innovation and productivity. As a person who cringes every time a teacher proposes group work, I’m game.

Image from: http://www.pedagoo.org/2013/03/group-work-for-humans/
Image from: http://www.pedagoo.org/2013/03/group-work-for-humans/

*I’m repeating what Cain reports about this study because I haven’t read this book… yet.

Euthenics at Vassar

In honor of my graduation today from Vassar College, I wanted to write about the Cognitive Science program’s home, Blodgett Hall, and the unique Euthenics program that it once housed.

Blodgett Hall
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.

An article in the Vassar Encyclopedia, The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics, details Vassar’s unique and short-lived Euthenics program. The program was inspired by Vassar alumna Ellen Swallow Richards (1870), who was the first woman to be accepted to MIT. She coined the word “euthenics,” the science of controllable environment, from the Greek stems eu (well) and tithemi (to cause). Put another way, euthenics was the development of human well-being through the improvement of living conditions, so it concentrated on the application of scientific principles in protecting air, water, and food. Much emphasis was placed on parents’ roles in assuring a quality life for their children in the future. Some courses included nutrition, food chemistry, child psychology, sanitation, horticulture, sociological and statistical studies, and economic geography.

The college’s President at the time, Henry MacCracken, was very excited to offer this new multidisciplinary subject, and saw euthenics as a progressive movement, a way for women to link their coursework at Vassar with professions afterward. His hope was for sciences and arts to enhance each other, rather than compete, which would be done by teaching them together as one multidisciplinary field.

The faculty were not as enthusiastic about the idea of euthenics as MacCracken had been. Many believed it would limit women’s development by pushing traditionally feminine fields on them. However, the program was narrowly accepted in 1924 because Minnie Cunnock Blodgett offered to fund the building to house the program. In addition to being equipped with classrooms and labs for the euthenics program, Blodgett Hall also contained a model apartment for the study of interior design and efficient housekeeping, which was also intended to be Blodgett’s residence when she returned to campus. It also included a social museum, displaying exhibits on topics such as tenement housing, racism, and children’s health.

Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton  Architectural Press: New York.
Minnie Cunnock Blodgett and President Henry Noble MacCracken
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.


In 1925, Euthenics courses were officially part of the curriculum, but the program was not as popular with the students as MacCracken and Blodgett had hoped, possibly because they were aware of the faculty’s general opposition to the program.

During the Depression, part of Blodgett was repurposed to create a lower cost coop housing opportunity, and after WWII, the Euthenics program was officially removed. One of the biggest problems with the program was that MacCracken presented it at to a traditional faculty just getting used to having autonomy over developing their own single disciplinary programs, making them resistant to the progressive multidisciplinary approach that he envisioned. However, the transient program did set the precedent for a number of multidisciplinary fields that exist at Vassar today, such as Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, and of course, Cognitive Science. Perhaps Euthenics is partly to thank for the Cognitive Science program that has continued to intrigue, excite, and push me throughout 4 awesome years at Vassar.

Plaque that remains under the archway of Blodgett to this day. Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.
Plaque that remains under the archway of Blodgett today. Reads: “This building dedicated to the study of Euthenics is given to Vassar College… to encourage the application of the arts and sciences to the betterment of human living.”
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.


Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.

Vassar Encyclopedia: The Disappointing First Thrusts of Euthenics

Can MOOCs improve higher ed?

General consensus seems to be that American higher education needs improvement. This article reports that on average, US college students spend only 12-14 hours studying per week, which is 50% less than they spent a few decades ago, and that 45% of undergrads exhibited no improvements on the standardized test used for their assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, after two years of college. [Note: this test does not account for potential gains in subject-specific skills, but instead focuses on reading and writing skills]. Meanwhile, the cost of a traditional 4-year university continues to climb rapidly.

Enter MOOCs: Massive open online courses through which many leading universities are making courses available to the 1,000,000+ people who have  signed up to date.

MOOC creators are quick to sing its praises, Nicholas Carr points out in his article, “The Crisis in Higher Education.” For one, the courses make education more accessible, most notably to people who are geographically isolated and to others who want to study while holding careers. They also allow students to go at their own pace, and often include periodic checkpoints so students don’t fall behind. MOOCs adapt to students’ responses, repeating and elaborating on topics when necessary, and moving ahead when students are ready. The future will likely include programs that monitor how students interact with the teaching system and provide materials tailored to students’ individual learning styles.

However, MOOCs aren’t necessarily the educational saviors that their creators suggest. For one, they have very high dropout rates: Carr reports that of the more than 155,000 people who signed up for a MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 even finished the first problem set, and only 7,000 (~5%) finished the course. The rate reflects the difficulty that MOOCs face in keeping their students engaged, a problem that could actually decrease the number of Americans completing college if the online courses were integrated into their curricula.

Another difficulty is the range of topics that MOOCs can adequately teach. Currently, most are math and computer science based (probably because they are created by computer science professors…), but how might they transfer liberal arts, more exploratory topics, into an online medium? How could they compensate for the value of social learning, learning that results from the unique combination of students and professors in a real-time physical classroom?

Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to MOOCs, but which outweighs the other? Are they a solution to America’s troubled higher education system, or might they further derail it?