Watching the Election Returns

I watched the election returns Wednesday morning in a totally packed Beijing cafe. Two McCain supporters, maybe 80 Obama supporters. I had to leave a little early; what I had thought was a dinner invitation was a lunch invitation, I had learned the day before. I sat next to two students from Harvard studying at Tsinghua. They found Tsinghua students more passive than Harvard students. I told them the story about the Berkeley prof who liked teaching Tsinghua students but not Berkeley students. Do Harvard profs like teaching? I asked. Their answer was vague. They told me about Tsinghua students, not to mention Harvard students, agonizing over the personal statements required with grad school applications. I told them that I’d seen thousands of those statements and no one in my department (at Berkeley) cared about anything but (a) do you want to be a professor? (the correct answer is yes) (b) do you want to work with me (the prof reading it)? and (c) your research experience. Once I came upon one that was unusually interesting and well-written and I said, “hey look at this person” but no one else agreed with me. When Obama was projected to win Ohio I figured he would win. The cheers of the crowd when the Ohio win was announced reminded me of when I watched a World Cup final, France versus Brazil, in a room full of French students and France scored a goal.

Thank god we have a president who understands Jane Jacobs.

6 Replies to “Watching the Election Returns”

  1. that seems kind of bothersome to me that professors wanted people who wanted to be professors. what’s the incentive there? don’t they want people to go out into the world and do something practical with their degrees? i mean particularly with psychology it seems like there would be lots of opportunities to do things of merit out in the world.

    but of course you’ve mentioned veblen…it’s strange if the only aimed at result of training grad students is so they become professors. there are more professors than grad students–you have this strange self-perpetuating organization of professors who replicate many versions of themselves. i guess it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective–a discipline and universities grow themselves, professors standing in for genes to some extent i suppose.

  2. “Do something practical with their degree”? How would that benefit the professor under whom the student got their degree? It wouldn’t. Whereas if a student becomes a professor his or her advisor becomes more famous. The practice would be defended on less selfish grounds by saying “the only thing our program really trains students for is to be professors.”

  3. good point. i think i recall reading gordon tullock say something similar.

    i don’t know, i mean wouldn’t it be great if a professor taught someone who put their work to great use in the world. to me that seems like a great reward. i guess the reward is not as palpable as teaching someone who then writes a certain amount of articles and expands on your ideas and maybe quotes you and improves your citation stats. and you would have potential followers i suppose helping to spread your ideas–though that is hard to quantify in some respects.

    but i do sort of find it surprising that the veblen-ian wall between practice and theory seems to match the evidence. i would have thought people out in the world who are applying professors’ ideas in the fields of business or public policy or wherever would be exciting to professors and a strong motivator.

    it does seem like some economists are into practice–there are some nobel prize winners who had ideas that influenced finance (possibly not in a positive way!) and in psychology, freud or carl rogers or albert ellis seemed like they were interested in both theory and practice.

    but i don’t hear of english professors advising fiction writers, i don’t think. i was a history undergrad and came to think that many historians were deeply un-interested in ‘learning lessons from history.’

  4. Seth,

    That’s so horribly cynical. I have no doubt it applies to some college professors, but let me give you an alternative story that is more charitable.

    1. Professors think they’re doing something useful to the world, perhaps directly useful (e.g., research on weight loss and depression), perhaps indirectly useful (educating people who will make future discoveries or who will teach future students). Even something with little direct material value (e.g., studying Shakespeare) can be useful if it makes people’s lives richer.

    2. The vast majority of professors know that the vast majority of our students will not become professors. We’re not hoping that all or even most of the graduate students become professors (in a sort of industry-wide pyramid scam); rather, we believe that our fields of study are important–that’s why we decided to devote our lives to these topics–and so we hope that we can train people to help teach a future generation of students.

    3. In my experience interacting with professors, becoming “more famous” is not a common goal. I mean, sure, I’d like to become more famous, but my impression is that most profs would like to avoid the limelight; what they really want is time to do their research. I agree that some profs play the status-seeking game of “my student got a better job placement than your student did,” but I don’t think that’s the key motivation here.

  5. Hmm. When did it become “horrible” to be cynical? I too can argue the non-cynical side of it, that is, come up with less self-interested reasons for what I observed. I’m only speaking about profs at Berkeley and by “famous” I don’t mean in a worldly sense, I mean in an academic sense. I would be curious to hear evidence that supports your interpretation. Here’s evidence that supports my interpretation. At Berkeley there was a requirement that all introductory psych students act as research subjects — spend a certain number of hours as subjects. This was free labor for many professors; what they would have had to pay thousands of dollars for (e.g., 200 subjects for 1 hour each) they got for free. Sure, the first hour of being a subject might be reasonably argued to be educational; perhaps even the second hour. But the fourth hour? the fifth hour? the sixth hour? Of course not. The requirement was six hours! This was pure exploitation. And we’re not talking one weird professor here — this was department policy.

  6. 1. I don’t mind cynicism in general but I don’t like it so much when it’s directed at people like me.

    2. Regarding your story about intro psych students: sure, I agree that profs, like just about everyone else, like to get something for nothing and not pay for other people’s labor if they can get away with it. But I don’t see that as evidence that these professors want to be more famous in an academic sense. I think the profs want to do their research, and if they can get experimental participants for free, they can do more research. Just like artists would like to get paint, canvas, and artists’ models for free, too, if they could get it. I’m not saying this is honorable behavior (even though I do the same sort of thing myself sometimes) but I see it as consistent with what I wrote above.

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