Photo of the day

Just in case you didn’t look at that amazing In Focus gallery of National Geographic contest photos, here’s another:

Fox Glance: During a regular trip through the forest, of which my actual intent was landscapes, I encountered this stunning little Red Fox. The moment came as the light broke through the clouds and trees, he turned with a glance of curiosity and gave me the unusual composition I was after. A scene I’ll never be lucky enough to see again in my life, so was over the moon I’d managed to capture the moment. Location: Thetford Forest, England. (© Sam Morris/National Geographic Photo Contest)

Photo of the day

Okay, I’m often saying that you should click through to the whole gallery.  And you never do (and you know who you are).  This one, please just take a minute and check out these entries in the National Geographic photo contest as curated in In Focus.  Pretty much every single one is awesome.

Fall Moose: I was fortunate to come across this moose having his evening meal in the Snake River, in Wyoming. He had chosen an excellent backdrop for his dining and the least I could do was get a snapshot of it. (© Glen Hush/National Geographic Photo Contest

Staying sober

It’s an ongoing joke with my students that at the end of the week’s last class I always say some variation on “have a good weekend and stay sober.”  On Wednesday I simply wished them a Happy Thanksgiving and was asked whither my standard admonition.  I explained that I endorsed the use of alcohol to make it successfully through potentially fraught family encounters (though I plan on relying on copious amounts of Diet Dr. Pepper, myself).  Anyway, it looks like more and more American college students are staying sober (or at least not binge drinking):

And overall drinking is down, especially for non-college students.  I really wonder how much of this has simply been replaced by marijuana consumption.  If so, I would say that’s actually a good thing as marijuana is a less harmful drug than alcohol on most every metric.  Anyway, more interesting discussion of what’s afoot at the Atlantic.

New blog category needed? “Pope Francis is awesome”

Okay, I’m not actually going to start this category.  But, even though I shouldn’t be by now, I’m still amazed at how awesome this pope is.  The idea that such a true man of God could actually make it to the top of the hierarchy in today’s Catholic church is (depressingly) shocking.  His pronouncements today on the excesses of capitalism– in no uncertain terms– were just awesome.  Here’s some excerpts from Yglesias‘ post:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape…

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system…

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

This is not just taking on the excesses of capitalism, but a specific rhetoric of capitalism as espoused by right-wing parties in the US (and elsewhere).

And, yes, the Church has always been quite liberal on issues of economic justice, but the Atlantic’s Emma Green explains how this is genuinely a major break with the past:

In light of this long-standing tension between the Church and communism, Pope Francis’s aggressively anti-capitalist posture seems all the more remarkable.  The bishop of Rome hasn’t just condemned what he sees as a failed free-market—he’a condemned the ethic and ideology that underlie free-market economies. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” Francis writes. “In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

This is more than just a lecture about ethics; it’s a statement about who should control financial markets. At least right now, Francis says, the global economy needs more government control—an argument that would have been unthinkable for the pope just 50 years ago.

But, I’m going to go back to Yglesias on just why I think this is so important:

I remember very clearly having been an intern in Chuck Schumer’s office and attending with the senator, some of his staff, and a wide swathe of New York City political elites an event at St Patrick’s Cathedral to celebrate the posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Archbishop John O’Connor. His successor, Archbishop Egan, delivered an address that went on at length about O’Connor’s charitable work, but on a public policy level addressed almost exclusively the Church’s support for banning abortion, for discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, and for school vouchers. That was a choice he made about what he thought it was important for people to hear about. Pope Francis is making a different kind of choice.

Exactly.  And Amen.  This continues Francis’ direct rebuke to those who think the mission of the church should be more to worry about the sexual behavior of others than for the care for the poor and oppresses, about which Jesus constantly preached.  Pope Francis’ Catholic church is one to which I am proud to belong.

Photo of the day

I love cool looking storm clouds, so I thought this Twisted Sifter gallery of incoming storm clouds was awesome.  Among my favorites:
Scary clouds over New York City!

Adnan Islam


In defense of the lecture

This semester I’ve been participating in a faculty book club on Learner-Centered Teaching.  In many ways, probably the best book I’ve read on college teaching– and I’ve read a lot.  The phrase that really sticks with me is “the one who does the work, does the learning.”  Implication: students passively absorbing a lecture just aren’t getting as much.  This book fits in with much of the research calling for teachers to be more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage.”  One question I brought up during our discussions was, “what if you are really good at lecture and only average at facilitating discussions and small-group work?”  I.e., me.  Sure, I can improve at being a “guide on the side” with work, but I’m quite sure I’ll never be as good at that as I am at giving a lecture (which, at the risk of being immodest– a risk I frequently take– I’m pretty damn good at).  Comparative advantage suggests I should therefore lecture.  But what if students really would learn more from me as an average facilitator?  Hmmm.  I do like to think– and don’t think I’m fooling myself– that in my lectures, which are highly interactive, the students are decidedly not just passive consumers of information and that they really are doing some of the “work” of learning.

Thus, I was particularly happy to come across this piece in the Atlantic defending the value of the lecture:

The tendency to see lecture-based instruction as alienating and stifling to student creativity is not altogether new. In Paulo Friere’s 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the lecturing teacher was cast as an arrogant imperialist. Alison King coined the flip expression “sage on the stage” in a 1997 article and, although more than half of King’s article consists of ideas for working small group approaches into otherwise lecture-centric courses, demonstrating that she was in no way looking to eliminate the lecture entirely, everyone from Common Core advocates to edtech disrupters has co-opted “sage on the stage” as license to heckle the “out-of-touch expert.” Nevertheless, there is immense value in lecture, and it must not be written off as boring and ineffective teaching.

In the 2010 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School “Is traditional teaching really all that bad?,” Guido Scwerdt and Amelie Wupperman tried to quantify the “sage-on-the-stage” model of education as compared to its counterpart, “guide-on-the-side,” in which a teacher designs an activity or learning experience for students and steps back from direct instruction. According to the data, students exposed to lecture more than other classroom activities showed more significant learning gains than their peers. The authors were careful to point out that this data need not be proscriptive. One of the study’s faults is that there is no way to account for the teachers who gravitate more towards lecturing because they excel at it, and those who encourage group work because they are comfortable managing such dynamics. If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well? [emphasis mine] I certainly know that while I am articulate in facilitating student discussion, my communication breaks down and I am a weaker teacher in a noisy room…

There is a reason TED talks are popular with students and adults alike. They are delivered on engaging topics, by engaging people, and they offer time for reflection by the audience…

Is the teacher devoted to conveying serious concepts the best manager of a noisy, interactive classroom? Does it make sense to assume that a quiet student is always a disengaged student? There is no one method of education that fails across the board, only the occasional rigid ideology that criticizes “one-size-fits-all education” while discontinuing a few of the less popular sizes.

I really don’t think we need to be either or when it comes to good teaching.  In my Intro class yesterday I delivered a bang-up lecture on Civil Rights in which I guarantee you nearly every student in the large lecture hall was engaged and in which they actually learned some key concepts about Civil Rights that they will be able to recall in the future.  In my afternoon class, the whole period was small-group and whole-class discussion about women and men’s changing roles in society and the workplace.  I felt great about both classes yesterday.  I think that as long as a lecture is a dry recitation of facts, sure it has to go.  But I think a dynamic, engaging lecture from somebody who knows what their doing should always have a role (though, surely not the sole one)  in education.

How women change men

Love this short post from the Atlantic that summarizes recent research on how women change men.  Some of the interesting points:

Men who have daughters also grow less attached to traditional gender roles: they become less likely to agree with the statement that “a woman’s place is in the home,” for instance, and more likely to agree that men should wash dishes and do other chores [2].

Having a sister, however, has the opposite effect, making men more supportive of traditional gender roles, more conservative politically, and less likely to perform housework [3].

Men with stay-at-home wives likewise favor a traditional division of labor. They tend to disapprove of women in the workplace, judge organizations with more female employees to be operating less smoothly, and show less interest in applying to companies led by female executives. They also more frequently deny promotions to qualified women [4].

Working with women, on the other hand, can encourage egalitarianism at home. Men take on more housework after switching from a male-dominated occupation, like construction or engineering, to a female-dominated one, like nursing or teaching, even after controlling for changes in income and hours [5].

And the implications for women summarized in a single sentence:

Evidently, the takeaway for women who want advancement at work and chore-sharing at home is this: work for a male CEO with lots of daughters, no sisters, and a working wife, and marry a man with plenty of female colleagues and a paycheck that’s bigger than yours.

Are corporations people too when it comes to religion?

Well, if conservatives have their way.  Looks like a case on this issue is headed for the Supreme Court as Hobby Lobby (and some federal appelate judges) feel it violates their religious freedom to cover contraceptives for their employees.  Who knew that corporations had religious freedom anyway?  Nice summary of the key issues in the NYT article.  Interestingly, the legal rationale borrows directly from Citizens United which so prominently gave corporations first amendment rights (in speech).

In Slate, Lorelei Lard explains just how problematic it is:

This ruling in Citizens United has been fodder for comics because, to state the obvious, corporations are not people with independent thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. That’s part of why the 3rd and 6th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals rejected the claims of corporations that don’t want to follow the contraception mandate in Obamacare. Those courts also ruled that the owners of those companies don’t have a freedom of religion claim of their own, because the mandate does not obligate them as individuals to do anything…

It’s not just the contraception mandate that’s at stake. Right now, civil rights law assures that your employer can’t legally fire you for practicing your religion or compel you to practice hers. But if corporations have religious rights, what happens if, as Rovner also suggested, a Southern Baptist employer declines to give the time off provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act to a gay male employee expecting the birth of a child by surrogacy? The company could claim that forcing it to recognize same-sex couples and their families—or pay substantial penalties in a lawsuit—violates its free-exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. To respect the employer’s religious rights, the courts could decide that the way for an employee to preserve his rights is to quit his job…

This would eviscerate traditional civil rights laws and defang new ones, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which just passed the Senate and would forbid discrimination nationwide on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In the past, courts have not accepted religious-freedom arguments for firing a white employee over an interracial friendship or refusing to hire or promote non-Christians. If corporations have religious rights and the contraception mandate is a “substantial burden” on those rights, decades of decisions like these could be at risk. Workers with beliefs different from those of their employers would clearly be the losers.

As Rovner pointed out, the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom was written in part because Colonial Americans felt monarchs should not tell people how to worship. By giving religious rights to corporations, the Supreme Court could give that power to their owners instead. That can’t be right.

If the owners of Hobby Lobby don’t want to pay for people to have the Pill, I suggest they don’t use any of their personal funds to buy contraception for others.  But Hobby Lobby Inc., does not have a religion.

Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Tumblr.  Wow.

A man and his dog on the Overhanging Rock in Yosemite National Park, May 1924.Photograph by Educational-Bruce Photograph

A man and his dog on the Overhanging Rock in Yosemite National Park, May 1924.PHOTOGRAPH BY EDUCATIONAL-BRUCE PHOTOGRAPH

Even without the filibuster, the Senate is not the House

So tired of the argument that there’s really no difference between the House and the Senate if you take away the filibuster.  That, of course, is absurd.  Seth Masket lays out exactly why so:

But let’s say it [complete elimination of the filibuster] does happen. Would the Senate be just like the House?

No, it really wouldn’t, for reasons that have much to do with the way the Founders set up the two chambers in the first place. Senators are, of course, elected on six-year terms. Only a third of the Senate is up for re-election in any given cycle, automatically giving that chamber a different outlook on political accountability and vulnerability from its counterpart.

Similarly, representation is obviously very different across the two chambers. Senators represent entire states as opposed to individual districts. This gives them different perspectives from most House members’ and different incentives regarding representation. It also creates a notable representational skew toward smaller states. All House districts are of roughly equal size, while a Senator may represent as few as 500,000 people or as many as 38,000,000. A resident of Wyoming gets a lot more representation in the Senate than a Californian does…

The different sizes of the chambers are also relevant. The reason that the House has historically been a less individualistic chamber with stronger parties and committees and more stringent rules regarding legislative debates is because that’s what you have to do when you have a large deliberative chamber. Four hundred thirty five people simply can not all know each other well or conduct civilized debates without strict rules. This is a principal of large numbers rather than a commentary on declining civility. In a chamber of 100, however, where the membership is more stable, friendships, personalities, and reputations may become more relevant in organizing legislative business. The smaller chamber will always be the more collegial one and the one that allows more open debate…

For all these reasons, even a Senate run under uniform principles of majority rule would behave very differently and serve very different constituencies than the House would. Legislation would still receive a thorough airing prior to becoming law, and there would still be a bias against action in the federal government.

Yeah, that.  Somehow the Senate was quite a different body than the House before the modern abuse of the filibuster, and so it would be in a post-filibuster world.  And to suggest eliminating the filibuster only for federal judicial and executive branch nominations somehow makes the Senate “just like the House” is beyond ignorant.

Photo of the day

From a Big Picture Daily Life gallery.  Indonesian cow racing!

A jockey spurs the cows as they race in Pacu Jawi on Oct. 12, in Batusangkar, Indonesia. This Pacu Jawi (traditional cow racing) is held annually in muddy rice fields to celebrate the end of the harvest season by the Minangkabau people. Jockeys grab the tails of the bulls and skate across the mud barefoot balancing on a wooden plank to show the strength of their bulls who are later auctioned to buyers. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

Bacteria on the mind

I’ve blogged plenty about the role of good bacteria in your overall physical health.  But now there’s evidence it may very well play an important role in your mental health as well.  Nice summary of the research from NPR:

Could the microbes that inhabit our guts help explain that old idea of “gut feelings?” There’s growing evidence that gut bacteria really might influence our minds.

“I’m always by profession a skeptic,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains.”

Mayer thinks the bacteria in our digestive systems may help mold brain structure as we’re growing up, and possibly influence our moods, behavior and feelings when we’re adults. “It opens up a completely new way of looking at brain function and health and disease,” he says…

Mayer found that the connections between brain regions differed depending on which species of bacteria dominated a person’s gut. That suggests that the specific mix of microbes in our guts might help determine what kinds of brains we have — how our brain circuits develop and how they’re wired…

But other researchers have been trying to figure out a possible connection by looking at gut microbes in mice. There they’ve found changes in both brain chemistry and behavior. One experiment involved replacing the gut bacteria of anxious mice with bacteria from fearless mice.

“The mice became less anxious, more gregarious,” says Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who led a team that conducted the research.

It worked the other way around, too — bold mice became timid when they got the microbes of anxious ones. And aggressive mice calmed down when the scientists altered their microbes by changing their diet, feeding them probiotics or dosing them with antibiotics…

Gut microbes may also communicate with the brain in other ways, scientists say, by modulating the immune system or by producing their own versions of neurotransmitters.

“I’m actually seeing new neurochemicals that have not been described before being produced by certain bacteria,” says Mark Lyte of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Abilene, who studies how microbes affect the endocrine system. “These bacteria are, in effect, mind-altering microorganisms.”

This research raises the possibility that scientists could someday create drugs that mimic the signals being sent from the gut to the brain, or just give people the good bacteria — probiotics — to prevent or treat problems involving the brain.

I think that truly understanding the human body as an ecosystem of human plus thousands of bacterial species is going to be the basis for our next series of major medical breakthroughs.  And now it looks like this may well be the case for mental health as well as physical health.  It’s really pretty amazing.  I really do wonder how long this will take.  In the meantime, it’s plenty of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG and yogurt for me.  

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