Tag Archives: academics

December 2011 Links: College as a Misallocated Resource, Latinos and Politics, Rising Gas Prices, Technology in Schools, Blogging, and More

* College has been oversold; notice especially data on student majors:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! [. . .]

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

I wrote a post on “College graduate earning and learning: more on student choice” that also covers these issues.

* You Say Latino: “I was talking with some graduate students, people I didn’t know, when the subject turned to minority issues. Every time I said Hispanic, the guy sitting next to me said Latino. This was about a decade ago; I hadn’t realized the terminology had changed.”

* [R]ising gas prices have pretty much wiped out the whole cash value of the stimulus to families. Read the whole thing at the link, along with this paper by James Hamilton. It may turn out that we simply can’t do anything about macro economic performance without working on energy problems. This kind of information has been circling among economics bloggers for quite a while but hasn’t made much way into the mainstream.

* “A toddler hit by two vehicles in a southern Chinese city and left unassisted by more than a dozen passersby died Friday, adding new fire to an anguished debate over the state of empathy in China’s fast-changing society.” Notice to the video. File this under “The world is not flat” (yet) and “culture is the water we swim in,” usually without knowing it.

* What dealing with California bureaucrats is like. We’ve experienced this indirectly; see, for example, this post and this one for more.

* Solving America’s teen sex “problem:” The Dutch have dramatically reduced adolescent pregnancies, abortions and STDs. What do they know that we don’t?

* “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute” is about a school without computers and the high-tech moguls who send their kids to the school. This resonates with me, given the research on computers in schools and the dangers of distraction.

* Hispanics Reviving Faded Towns on the Plains; notice the contrast with what Isaac wrote in “Seliger + Associates Hitches Up the Wagons and Heads Out to Where the Pavement Turns to Sand.”

* “The Economics of Bike Lanes;” hint: they’re pretty good. Notice this quote about the Washington MetroRail: “Parking spaces cost on average $25,000 each, compared with $1,000 per space for a secured bike cage. “It’s an extremely expensive proposition for us” to expand car parking, [Kristin Haldeman, Metro’s manager of access planning] said.”

* On Never Quitting starts with a great line: “I used to think Joe Konrath was full of shit.” Note that this is posted on Joe Konrath’s blog.

* Grant humor, via The New Yorker:

* Why academics should blog, which seems completely obvious to me.

* How to fix math education in high school and college. Good luck: the incentives don’t look good to me right now.

* A former teacher gets an MFA in puppetry and can’t find a job afterward; note that we’ve worked for a number of nonprofit puppeteers over the years. Hat tip Alex Tabarrok, and do read his analysis:

What astounds me is not that someone could amass $35,000 in student loans pursuing a dream of puppetry, everyone has their dreams and I do not fault Joe for his. What astounds me is that Richard Kim, the executive editor of The Nation and the author of this article, thinks that the failure of a puppeteer to find a job he loves is a good way to illustrate the “national nightmare” of the job market.

* The feds pay contract IT workers half what they pay their own employees. If that’s not enough, those contractors then turn around and work to minimize their own employees’ rights and compensation.

* Best recent RFP: the National Park Service’s “Exploration of Acoustic Environments – Natural Sound Field Activities Focused on Diverse and Undeserved Youth.” I like noise too.

* From the U.K.: World power swings back to America. Maybe.

* New York City Cops and contempt for the law.

* Malcolm Gladwell on “The real genius of Steve Jobs.”

* Apple may axe the Mac Pro. We hope not: Isaac used one for four years, and the form factor is amazing for anyone who needs expandability in their computers. That being said, their current prices have gone from ludicrous to ridiculous; we hope for a price cut and more reasonable processors, rather than the removal of the line itself.

Writing Conversationally and the Plain Style in Grant Proposals and My Master’s Exam

The kinds of skills you learn by grant writing don’t only apply to grant writing.

Loyal Grant Writing Confidential readers know that in my other life I’m a grad student in English Literature at the University of Arizona. Last week I took my MA written exam, which consisted of three questions that I had to answer over a four-hour period—a bit like Isaac’s recommended test for would-be grant writers:

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

Except the University of Arizona lets you eat and drink tea if you want. Given the extreme deadline pressure, the exam demands that people who take it write quickly and succinctly. I e-mailed my answers to one of my academic friends, who replied, “You write so, well, conversationally, that I wonder how academics will view this. I find it refreshing.” Although this is an underhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one, I take it as a real complement given how many academics succeed by writing impenetrable jargon. And “conversationally” means, “other people can actually understand what you wrote and follow the thread of your argument.”

This is exactly what I do whether completing a written Master’s exam or writing proposals. If you’re a grant writer, you should too. Proposals should be more or less understandable to readers, who probably won’t give you a very good score if they can’t even figure out what you’re trying to say. It might be tempting to follow the old advice, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” but although that might be a good strategy in arguments about politics in bars where your audience is drunk, it’s not such a good idea in proposals. I’ve spent most of my life trying to communicate clearly, in what Robertson Davies and others call the “plain style,” which means a style that is as short as it can be but no shorter, using words as simple as possible but no simpler.* The goal, above all else, is clarity and comprehensibility. If you’ve spent any time reviewing proposals, you know that an unfortunate number come up short on this metric.

Over the last decade and change, I’ve been trained to write proposals in such a way that any reasonably educated person can understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the proposal. This applies even to highly technical research topics, in which we write most of the proposal and include technical content and specifications that our clients provide. You should write proposals like this too. Sure, the academics of the world might raise their noses instead of their glasses to you, but they often don’t make good grant writers anyway. A good proposal should be somewhat conversational. People on average appear to like conversation much more than they like reading sentences skewed my misplaced pretension. If you manage to write in the plain style, people might be so surprised that they even find your work “refreshing.” And “refreshing” in the grant world means “fundable,” which is the final goal of all grant writing.

And, as for the exam—I passed.


* For more on this subject, read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (which I assign to my students every semester) and John Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing , which I’m going to start assigning next semester.