The Job Interview - Anecdotal Data

December 30, 2007 
Posted by Jay Livingston

has had a discussion about campus visits for job candidates. Good timing – at Montclair, we’ve just completed a search. We reviewed several dozen applications and had two people come to campus for interviews. But why?

isn’t quite the right word. Neither is ordeal, though it comes closer. The person spends an entire day on campus: there’s morning coffee, then The Talk presenting her research, informal chats and lunch with faculty, an interview with the dean, maybe teaching a sample class, a campus tour, dinner with faculty. I’ve become convinced that these visits are useful only for seeing how you’ll get along socially, not for anything truly academic. It’s sort of like a first date or, in societies with arranged marriages, the pre-wedding meeting that a couple may have. And about as useful for predicting compatibility.

For the task part of the job, for gauging how the person will be as a scholar and teacher, the campus visit may be worse than no visit at all. That’s especially true for teaching. We used to ask candidates to do a sample class. This time around, we dropped that requirement, though for logistical reasons not methodological ones. Still, it was the right decision. A class session taught by a job applicant is anecdotal evidence, and it puzzles me that a group of social scientists would use it at all.

It’s not just anecdotal evidence, it’s unrepresentative anecdotal evidence. You have your candidate teach one session of another teacher’s course – students she’s never seen before and as many as half a dozen faculty members watching from the back of the room. Nevertheless, just as the dramatic story is often more convincing than a ream of statistics, seeing someone in person can outweigh more systematic data, even for sociologists, who should know better.

In discussing the candidate later, when someone cites the outstanding evaluations the person has received in several courses at her home university, someone else might say, “Well, she didn’t seem so good with our students,” as if this bit of anecdotal evidence wiped out the systematic evidence of the all those evaluations. As Stalin is supposed to have said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers, that is a statistic; the death a single Russian soldier, that is a tragedy.” And even among sociologists, statistics can be less compelling than tragedy.

Palm Christmas

December 24, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway . . .
But it's December the twenty-fourth . . .
A Wall Street Journal article by John Steele Gordon reminds me how deeply entrenched in my mind are the images of Christmas – all those wintry images of snowmen and skaters, pine trees with tinsel icicles, chestnuts roasting, and all the rest. Then I got down here to Florida. The decorations were the same – stockings, wreaths, Santas. But they were framed in palm trees, and I was wearing shorts.

Those Christmas lights should be reflecting off the snow, not off the water in the marina.

Gordon notes that the Christmas I’m thinking of is a fairly recent creation and has little to do with the birth of Jesus (which is O.K. with me). I’ve visited Bethlehem, and it didn’t seem like the sort of place you’d find Frosty the Snowman, even in December. (And as Gordon says, it’s likely that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was in the spring or summer, when shepherds abide in the fields, not in the winter, when the flocks are in the corral.)

Even the holiday shopping didn’t have the same feel as it does in cold weather. Here, it just seemed like a lot of people in Best Buy.

No, this is more what I had in mind (I took this one last week).


Schmucks With Powerbooks

December 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans usually think about class as money. But there are still areas where structural position and power trump income. Athletes, in strict Marxian terms, are part of the proletariat. They toil for wages, they have a union.

They aren’t the only well-paid workers of the world with a working-class consciousness. As we speak, some very well paid writers of movies and TV shows are walking the picket lines. The studios made an offer last week which they claim will pay writers an average of $230,000 a year. The Writers Guild considered it an insult. The offer and the claim were misleading, but even if they were accurate, the Marxian class division – bourgeoisie and proletariat, owners and workers – would still hold.

Nearly thirty years ago, Ben Stein wrote a book about the way Hollywood writers portrayed America (The View from Sunset Boulevard, 1979). The writers were making what by most standards was a lot of money. Stein, a conservative then and now, seemed to be especially puzzled by their demonization of business and wealth, not just in the scripts they wrote but in their private beliefs.
Even those with millions of dollars believed themselves to be part of a working class distinctly at odds with the exploiting classes – who, if the subject came up, were identified as the Rockefellers and multinational corporations. For an obscure reason, the name of Nixon was also thrown in frequently.
(Stein was a big Nixon fan and obviously sensitive to any mention of the name of his hero. He’d been a Nixon speechwriter, and some years later – I wish I could track down this quote – he said that Nixon had “the soul of a poet.”)

But a few pages later, Stein describes the structural position of the writer in classic Marxist terms:
The Hollywood TV writer . . . is actually in a business, selling his labor to brutally callous businessmen. One actually has to go through that experience of writing for money in Hollywood or anywhere else to realize just how unpleasant it is. Most of the pain comes from dealings with business people, such as agents or business affairs officers of production companies and networks.
And the current clash seems to be over surplus value (another Marxian term) in the form of residuals. It’s also about the owners’ expropriation of the workers’ product, for regardless of who actually creates the words in a script, the legal author of a movie is the studio. And I also suspect that at some level it’s about respect. I get the sense that the studios’ basic view of their employees hasn’t much changed since the days of Jack Warner, who said famously

Actors – schmucks. Writers – schmucks with Underwoods.
Except now the schmucks have Powerbooks, agents, and unions.

The LA Times has been running a good colloquy – or “dust-up” as they call it – between a writer and a media mogul discussing the strike. You can find it here.

Jocks - Wealth vs. Power

December 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Phil, in his comment on the previous post, says that as food for thought, he asks students “to chew on the class position of David Beckham.” How to reconcile the fabulous incomes of these sports stars with their subjugated structural position? True, Beckham and Barry Bonds are not exactly the proletariat of Dickensian London. But they do earn most of their money, whether on the field or from endorsements, by working for the owners. They have much wealth but relatively little power. Is the fault in our superstars, dear Beckham, in our Marxist theories, or in sport itself?

William Rhoden, a sports writer for the New York Times, argues that black athletes, even the very well paid, are still the exploited. They are Forty Million Dollar Slaves, and when they threaten to revolt or seize some small bit of power, the white establishment reacted strongly to retain control. We all know what happened to Ali when he challenged the Vietnam war, and if we’ve seen The Great White Hope, we know about Jack Johnson. But who knows about Rube Foster, who tried to form a baseball league with black-owned teams?

What’s interesting – and disappointing to Rhoden – is how few black athletes have used their wealth to move into positions of ownership. Successful musicians start their own record labels or even clothing lines (P. Diddy). But athletes, white or black, have not become brands, nor even noticeably entrepreneurs or owners. It’s Jay-Z, not some former athlete, who’s a co-owner of the Nets.

Driven to Distractors

December 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
My final exam will have some multiple-choice questions. I write my own, and it’s sometime hard to come up with good wrong choices, or “distractors” as people in the test-making biz call them. I always try to have at least a couple of questions with one amusing distractor. For example,
A janitor makes $8 an hour; Barry Bonds makes tens of millions a year playing baseball. Why might Marx classify both men as members of the same social class?
a. They are both in occupations that have uncertain career paths.
b. They are both in occupations that do not require extensive education.
c. They are both selling their labor to someone who owns the means of production.
d. They are both in occupations that have many minorities.
e. They are both in occupations that don’t have very good tests for steroids.
It's the last choice that's supposed to elicit a small smile, though I prefer a distractor that's truly silly.
In Durkheim’s view, the god or gods that a society worshiped were a representation of
a. The society itself
b. The unknowable
c. An authoritarian father
d. Chuck Berry
I stole that one from an old Monty Python page (The Hackenthorpe Book of Lies), and maybe Chuck Berry isn’t le distractor juste for students born in 1986. I’m open to suggestions for better distractors . . . and better questions.

The risk, of course, is that the distractor you thought was so ludicrous it would get a chuckle – usually at least one student chooses it. Wait, maybe that’s it – instead of Chuck Berry, Ludacris.

Bothered in Translation

December 12, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dan Myers has an amusing post today reprinting the transcript from his computer's dictation software.

Here's further evidence that language still presents problems for computers.

Apparently this mistranslation is widespread in China - in supermarkets (as above), in restaurants (as below), and elsewhere.

Victor Mair at The Language Log makes a strong case that the source of the error is not human malice or mischief but the machine translation of a simplified Chinese ideogram.

Sleepless Nights

December 10, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

I have left out my abortion, left out running from the pale, frightened doctors and their sallow, furious wives in the grimy, curtained offices on West End Avenue. What are you screaming for? I have not even touched you, the doctor said. His wife led me to the door, her hand as firmly and punitively on my arm as if she had been a detective making an arrest. Do not come back ever.

I ended up with a cheerful, never-lost-a-case black practitioner, who smoked a cigar throughout. When it was over he handed me his card. It was an advertisement for the funeral home he also operated. Can you believe it, darling? he said.
That’s Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a week ago. The obits said that she was best known as an essayist, a co-founder of the New York Review and wife, for a time, of Robert Lowell. But Sleepless Nights is what I remember. It’s a novel that seems more like a memoir, that might well be a memoir. New York in the forties and fifties (as in the above passage), Louisville in the twenties and thirties.

Here’s a relgious campground of her youth:
Under the string of light bulbs in the humid tents, the desperate and unsteady human wills struggle for a night against the fierce pessimism of experience and the root empiricism of every troubled loser . . . .Perhaps here began a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking and crashing.
She did not stay long in the church

Seasons of nature and seasons of experience that appear as a surprise but are merely the arrival of the calendar’s predictions. Thus the full moon of excited churchgoing days and the frost of apostasy as fourteen arrives.

Living in New York in the forties, she went to jazz clubs to hear Billie Holiday:
The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume – and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing, created a large, swelling anxiety. . . . Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. . . . .Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.
She had heard jazz back in Louisville – Ellington, Chick Webb – but it was different:
When I speak of the great bands it must not be taken to mean that we thought of them as such. No, they were part of the summer nights and the hot dog stands, the fetid swimming pool heavy with chlorine, the screaming roller coaster, the old rain-splintered picnic tables, the broken iron swings. And the bands were also part of the Southern drunkenness, couples drinking Coke and whiskey, vomiting, being unfaithful, lovelorn, frantic. The black musicians, with their cumbersome instruments, their tuxedos, were simply there to beat out time for the stumbling, cuddling fox-trotting of the period.

You should read this book if only for the prose style. O.K., it’s not sociology, but it’s a finely observed rendering of these times and places and her life there.

Torture, Execution, and Conservative Morality

December 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mark Kleiman, prime mover of The Reality-Based Community, asks why it is that people on the Hard Right reject candidates who have reservations about torture and capital punishment. What is it about these practices that they find so appealing?

To his credit, Mark doesn’t merely dismiss them as sadists, at least not all of them. Instead, he writes:
But even people who take no personal joy in imagining the torture of enemies may take support for torture as a positive sign in evaluating a candidate. A candidate who supports torture (1) displays an unlimited, as opposed to a merely conditional, willingness to fight terrorism and (2) displays andreia, “manliness.”

He’s not wrong, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality provides a more complete way of understanding the problem. Liberals in the Western industrialized world, says Haidt, evaluate morality on two dimensions:
  • harm/care
  • fairness/justice
But Haidt’s reading of most other societies, past and present, reveals three other dimensions that provide the bases of morality:
  • ingroup/loyalty
  • authority/respect
  • purity/sanctity
Conservatives in the US, have retained these three bases for morality, and they often outweigh the first two.

My own hunch is that ingroup/loyalty is the most important, especially in the debate over torture and the death penalty. The terrorist and the convicted killer stand on the other side of our society’s moral boundary. They are not part of our group; in fact, they are a danger to it. They are, therefore, not protected by the morality that we apply to people within our group – the loyalty factor trumps all others – so anything we do to them in the name of protecting our group is morally justified.

And, as Kleiman notes, ideology takes precedence over evidence of actual effectiveness.
the consequentialist arguments (the death penalty deters/torture extracts useful information) are largely afterthoughts.
Purity, loyalty, respect – basically it’s Mafia morality, a morality which, as I blogged a while ago, has a deep appeal to many Americans.

The Subprime Thing For Dummies

December 7, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I like simplified explanations of complicated economic stuff I don't understand. The more pictures and fewer words, the better. So I was very please to find this graphic flow chart created by Felix Salmon at to explain CDOs, RMBSs, tranches, and the whole subprime mortgage fiasco.

I can’t figure out how to get Blogspot to print the graphic as large as it needs to be for you to read the text box. But you can find the whole show here.

This Takes the Cake

December 6, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I'm not sure what the sociological import of this is, and you may have already seen it as it whirls around the Internet. But since my previous post ended with a ritual cake, this is sort of a follow-up.

Apparently someone phoned the bakery at Wal-mart and ordered a customized cake for a co-worker who was leaving. When asked what message was to go on the cake, the caller probably said something like, “OK, here's what I want: 'Best Wishes Suzanne' ; underneath that, 'We will miss you.'”

Here's the cake:

Sweat Equity and Magical Thinking

December 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember the Seinfeld episode about wiping the exercise machine at the gym?  (To see it, go here, push the slider to 16:30 and watch for 50 seconds.)

Elaine and Greg at the health club. A sweaty Greg is exercising on a leg machine. 
ELAINE: Hi, Greg. 
GREG: Hey, Elaine. I'll be off in a second. Another guy approaches the exercise machine. 
ELAINE: I got the machine next, buddy. Greg finishes up his workout and gets off the machine. 
GREG (to Elaine): It's all yours. Walks away. Elaine looks at the machine, then George runs over. 
GEORGE: What happened? Did he bring it up? 
ELAINE: Never mind that, look at the signal I just got.
GEORGE: Signal? What signal? 
ELAINE: Lookit. He knew I was gonna use the machine next, he didn't wipe his sweat off. That's a gesture of intimacy. 
GEORGE: I'll tell you what that is - that's a violation of club rules. Now I got him! And you're my witness! 
ELAINE: Listen, George! Listen! He knew what he was doing, this was a signal. 
GEORGE: A guy leaves a puddle of sweat, that's a signal?
ELAINE: Yeah! It's a social thing. 
GEORGE: What if he left you a used Kleenex, what's that, a valentine?

There I was at the gym in Florida on the elliptical machine (the machine that won’t come right out and say what it means), sweating and thinking about sweat. The fitness room at the condo enclave in Sarasota where my mother lives has a spray bottle (disinfectant? soap?) and paper towels, and everyone sprays and wipes the machine when they finish. I guess it’s so you don’t contract what they have, which seems mostly to be old age.

But I think Elaine had it right. Sweat is about social contagion, not medical contagion. It’s part of magical thinking – the idea that a person’s essence, spirit, power, mana, or whatever you want to call it can be transmitted physically by touch and by those things that were once part of the body. Hair is often the medium of choice, whether for voodoo or lockets. And wasn’t someone selling some celebrity’s hair on eBay? But we can also use fingernail parings, clothes, breath, or especially, precious bodily fluids

So sweat can be gross or it can valuable, depending on the source. If it’s just another struggling exerciser, we spray and wipe lest we be touched with their mundane germs. But if it’s someone whose magic we want to capture or someone we want to be connected to, that sweat is just what we need.

I kept pedaling, going nowhere fast, following this train of thought, and watching MTV. In the afternoon, viewing choice at the gym is limited, and I wasn’t up for the stock market channel or the soaps. “My Super Sweet Sixteen” was just coming to a close. A girl at the party was holding up a CD of the rap star who’d been hired for the party. “I got him to wipe some of his sweat on it,” she beamed ecstatically. The sweat transmitted his superstar magic to the CD. By touching the CD, she was now touching him and acquiring some of that magic.

Birthday parties themselves follow this same logic of magical thinking. We make the birthday girl or boy superstar for a day. We invest her or him with this magic power, and then we capture it. How?

After the sweaty CD moment, the camera panned over to the birthday girl leaning over her cake. With one long, sweeping breath, she blew out the sixteen candles. The show ended before the cutting and serving of the cake, but here’s the point: Suppose someone invites you to dine. You finish the appetizer and main course, and then your friend says, “I want you to have this wonderful pastry for dessert. But before I serve it to you, I’m going to breathe heavily all over it at close range.” He proceeds to do just that and then hands you the pastry.

Under most circumstances, we’d resent the offer as unsanitary. But at a birthday party. . . .

UPDATE, Feb. 2013:  In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council has issued guidelines recommending that children not be allowed to blow out the candles.  (Time has the story.)

More Worlds in Collision

December 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I posted something recently about the new problems of “audience segregation” created by Facebook and other social networking sites. I had forgotten about a Washington Post article from last June that Eszter had linked to.

The students at a Bethesda high school had a worlds-in-collision experience when they opened their yearbooks and found pictures that the yearbook editors had downloaded from their Facebook pages. The yearbook staff weren’t trying to be stalkers. But they hadn’t taken enough photos themselves, and they were pressed for time, so they went to the Internet and grabbed Facebook photos off friends’ pages. (If this scenario sounds like the one usually associated with plagiarised papers, that’s because it is. Essays, photos, whatever.)

Facebook users can restrict who has access to their pages, an arrangement which sounds like it ensures some degree of privacy. But on second thought, it means that you have entrusted your privacy, your audience control, to all those you designate as friends. It takes only one “friend” facing a yearbook deadline to shatter that wall of privacy. And suddenly the world can see that picture of you and your friends, with your goofy poses and red plastic cups.

“We grew up with the idea that you can share anything you want with your friends through the Internet," said Amy Hemmati, 16, a rising Walter Johnson junior. “I think we're very trusting in the online community, as opposed to adults, who are on the outside looking in.”