Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.
One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

Tackling the dissertation proposal

Leonard Cassuto offers reasonably good advice on preparing for, and preparing, a dissertation proposal. Standards and expectations vary from field to field and department to department (even within a field) so take the advice with some caution, but as he says, “consult your advisor”!
In a commentary on Cassuto’s article, Daren Brabham adds this very important point:

I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.

Nonfiction and fiction about academic life

My student, Maciej Kos, found this syllabus for a course on academic work. It contains a pretty good listing of fiction and non-fiction books about academic life. (I would add to the list of novels Old Scores by Nicholas Delbanco, and several of the novels of Rebecca Goldstein, such as The Mind-Body Problem.) I have been giving a copy of James Lang’s memoir Life on the Tenure Track to new junior faculty.
Blanchette, “Academic Work”, Information Studies 298-C, Winter 2010, UCLA

Content to contribute: Wikipedia

From time to time I find pages in my areas of professional knowledge that seriously need improvement. On my long to-do list, editing Wikipedia never seems to make it to the top. But I might as well start a list in case I am looking for something to do in the future, or better yet, to suggest as an exercise for graduate students in my area.
Today I noticed:

  • Incentive compatibility: For example, the article says that there are different “types” of IC (dominant strategy, Bayes-Nash). These aren’t different types of IC. IC is a constraint (or sometimes a desideratum), and one can impose it on problems which we solve under different rationality assumptions. (This isn’t a very good statement either!) Also, Bayes-Nash is defined incorrectly (the definition given is for Nash more generally.)
  • Strategyproof: This one is really dreadful. The concept is defined incorrectly at least once (and the mere fact that it is defined more than once in a single entry is not good): the claim is made that “strategyproof” is equivalent to incentive compatibility + individual rationality. NOT. Also, the rather absurd claim is made that the concept is “most natural to the theory of payment schemes for network routing”. I can’t even fathom what metric one might use to measure whether a concept is more or less “natural” in various settings, but in any case, it seems absurd on its face to privilege network routing applications over all other applications for which dominant strategy constructs (such as strategyproofness) are useful. I actually looked this one up because I heard someone use the concept incorrectly in a research presentation, and that reminded me that a careful definition for strategyproofness is rarely stated, though it is used quite often.

If you happen to pick up on one of these and do some editing, be sure to note it here!

Hamming: “You and your research”

Richard Hamming was a great mathematician and scientist. He is perhaps best known for developing the “Hamming code“, a linear one-bit error-correcting code, widely used in computer RAM.
On 7 March 1986 he gave a talk in the Bell Communications Research Colloquia Series, entitled “You and Your Research“. It was transcribed by J. F. Kaiser. It is an insightful discussion of his years of study of the traits of scientists, their work habits, attitudes, etc., that seem to affect whether they make significant contributions. I strongly urge all scholars to read this essay.
One of his interesting, and perhaps surprising, observations: “One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage.” “If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to.”
Another interesting point: to do important work, you have to be working on important problems. And at the very least, you need to be constantly asking what are the important problems?

Plagiarism sucks

It has been my casual impression, as a teacher, that graduate students are plagiarizing more frequently than they use to (I haven’t taught undergrads since the earlier 90s, so I have no opinion about them). This view is widely held, I sense, though I don’t know if there is much careful evidence to support it. Certainly there is a sense that plagiarism is easier, now that there is so much text available on the Internet and cut-and-paste is so easy; the economist in me thinks that if the costs have gone down and the expected penalties are not much higher then the amount of plagiarism will increase.
(It is not immediately obvious that expected penalties have increased: it is also somewhat easier to catch Internet-based plagiarism, since search tools facilitate finding matching phrases. But as a teacher I think that the ease of catching has not increased as much as the ease of plagiarizing.)
In confronting students in the past few years, I also have the casual sense that there is less understanding of why plagiarism is unacceptable in academia. A typical response is “I did the research, I found the information, why should I have to rewrite it in my own words?”
Jack Shafer has published a column in Slate.com magazine entitled “Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks“. He focuses on plagiarizing in journalism, but his concerns for the most part translate to academia as well, and are worth reading by scholars. Most people seem to understand that plagiarism is a type of theft (but doubt that original authors lose much or care much if they aren’t cited in an unpublished term paper). But Shafer emphasizes harm to original authors is but one, and perhaps the least concern. His other concerns include “Journalism is about truth, not lies”, “It corrupts the craft”, “It promotes the dishonest”.
When I try to educate straying students, I, too, emphasize the importance of trust between author and reader. I point out that if a boss finds that an employee is cutting corners and plagiarizing, even if the ideas presented are good, the boss will stop trusting the employee, and that is the beginning of the end.
There is another concern for students: You don’t learn as much when you plagiarize. Learning is much more than learning to find what others have written on a topic. Even if you do nothing more than rewrite the ideas in your own words, cognitive psychologists have convincingly shown that the deeper processing and rehearsal that this entails greatly improves the writer’s learning of the material. (Which is not to say that rewriting someone else’s ideas is enough to avoid plagiarism: you need to provide attribution for the ideas, as well.) And there is also the not small matter of learning how to write in the first place!