Monday, September 25, 2017

Getting Feedback is Good, Even When It's Bad Feedback

Feedback can be hard to take, but it’s necessary.  Simplistically, if your project is a total stinker, you need to know that. Of course, someone saying your work is a total stinker doesn’t mean that it is. Different things work for different people.
We all are limited in our perspectives: we know what we think, but we don’t know what other people think.  And when we’re trying to produce something that is intended to communicate with other people (if we’re writing or using other communicative media), what other people think is crucial.

Sometimes I think the feedback I would most like to get is someone saying they liked my work, and also echoing back my message in their own words. If someone says “I think you’re saying X,” and “X” is the message I was hoping to share, that’s a successful piece of writing.

If I have nerved myself up to give something to someone, getting no response can be painful in itself, so I’d rather get something terse. It can be frustrating if someone gives very terse comments—good or bad—because the comments may not give guidance on how to move forward.  But that’s a personal frustration: if someone likes or dislikes your work and doesn’t give you any more information than that, it’s still valuable feedback.
If they like it, you can rest on your laurels. Or you can work on things that you want to work on.  You can try to guess the reasons they liked it.  And you can at least feel good that you got positive feedback.
If someone says they don’t like your work, and nothing more, it doesn’t help you figure out how you can get that person to like a new draft, but it does give you some indication of the strength of the work in someone else’s eyes. It’s no good to have someone worrying overmuch about hurting my feelings. If the feedback I get is a sense that they’re unwilling to say what they really feel, I’m only left to imagine the worst, so I’d rather actually get feedback, even if it is “your work sucks.”

Whether your work is awesome or it stinks, having a sense of what other people think of it can help you decide how to proceed.  I’m trying to get a friend of mine to give me some feedback right now, and I want to assure him that telling me that my work sucks is better than him saying he hasn’t looked at it. Even if all he tells me is: “I gave it two minutes, and it sucked so much I didn’t want to deal with it any more.”

There is toxic feedback, of course: if someone writes that your work proves that you’re an imbecile who is a waste of food, air, and water, that’s not good. But such a personal attack hardly shows the maturity of the source of feedback. For the most part, you can always ignore personal attacks inspired by your work—only if they’re coming from someone on whom you depend (a dissertation advisor, for example), should you do anything more with personal attacks than ignore them (I mean, assuming they’re limited to mean responses to your writing, obviously if someone is slandering/libelling you to many, you might want to take action, but that’s not really in the realm of getting feedback on your work.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Expressive writing and mental state

I regularly tout the benefits of writing and of practicing writing (or at least it has been a common theme in my writing over years, if not in recent blog posts).  A recent study at Michigan State University associated specific benefits associated with expressive writing—writing about feelings and thoughts. (

The authors of the study compared two groups of students who were set to perform the same main task—a test, and also a secondary task, either writing about what they did the previous day (not expressive) or writing about their feelings about the upcoming test (expressive). Their basic finding was that those doing the expressive writing were calmer (actually, they described it in terms of brain activation states because they were measuring the students with electroencephalography).  The lead author used a automotive fuel-efficiency metaphor, saying the difference between the brains performing the expressive writing task and those performing the control (non-expressive) task was like the difference between a Prius and a gas guzzler from the 1970s.  The students in the two groups performed the same on the main task (the test), so there was no direct impact on performance on the test itself. I am unsure from what I have read whether the higher-efficiency brain activity induced by the expressive writing task lasted into the main task.  In any event, this is good evidence that there is a real benefit to writing about your own feelings about a task.

For people who are stuck, I have often recommended writing about their feelings about the project—which has sometimes worked. One reason I like having people write about ow they feel about a project is that it can help reveal crucial theoretical assumptions. Another reason is that once someone has started writing about their feelings about the project, that can often transition into writing about the project itself. This study suggests that writing about how you feel about a project can help calm you down.

The many who have suggested that writing has therapeutic benefit—and there are many such in the self-help shelves—seem to have evidence to back up at least some claim to therapeutic benefit.

Generally speaking, writing is an important practice for people who will need to express ideas in their lives—both professionals and academics.  No matter how difficult writing may seem, it gets easier when you practice, and that allows you to work more efficiently because you communicate with others more efficiently.  This recent study suggests yet another reason to practice writing—or at least expressive writing: it helps improve your mental state.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Colleges and Universities are Good (revisited)

An article in the Washington Post this morning discussed the gap between how people in the U.S. see themselves and how people around the world see the U.S. and its residents. (Trump is Making Americans See the U.S. the Way the Rest of the World Already Did.)

While I think the author is a little careless in her generalizations, I generally agree with her main points that far too many residents of the U.S. are frightfully out of touch with the rest of the world. Certainly the U.S. public educational system does not dedicate great resources to understanding people from around the world.  I would not write a blog post just to agree with her, nor to take her to task for being a little careless in generalizing.  But towards the end of the article, the author makes a statement that just makes me angry for its basic acceptance of the anti-intellectual trend that is polluting public discourse in the U.S. at present:
many other average Americans with dangerously naive ideas about themselves and their country grow up to become teachers, foreign correspondents, presidents. What they did not learn as children will not be cured by what they learn at elite universities, in self-regarding metropolitan centers or in graduate schools that for the most part tell them that the United States is the center of the planet and that they are the smartest on it. 
Do I think there are many Americans (U.S. residents) who have dangerously naive views of themselves and their countries? Absolutely, I do.  But do I agree that such dangerously naive views cannot be cured by universities or graduate schools or metropolitan centers? Absolutely not.  The view that colleges and universities are part of the problem, or at least are no help in dealing with it, is pernicious anti-intellectual propaganda that serves conservative and Anglo-centric perspectives.

Firstly, let’s just stipulate that arrogance or hubris are not good. It’s good to believe in oneself, to feel proud of who and what you are, but it’s not good to be arrogant about it. It’s one thing to believe in oneself, and it’s quite another to believe oneself superior to another. And yet another thing to let that self-regard keep you from learning new things because you think you know better.

Secondly, I’m going to assert that the general idea of American Exceptionalism is either trite or inappropriate arrogance.  If we say that Americans are different from the rest of the world in that they are American and everyone else is not American, it is trite and tautological (the band Camper Van Beethoven sang “If you didn’t live here in America, you’d probably live somewhere else” in the song “Good Guys and Bad Guys”).  If Americans are different in some other way, then that characteristic should be something real that we can identify and define. We could then see if Americans are actually different (and potentially superior) in that way. The “American Exceptionalism” generally posited by the political right in the US is little more than an arrogant “Americans are better because we’re American,” without any clarifying or signifying characteristic that makes Americans better. If American exceptionalism said “Americans are better because they’re richer” (or smarter, or prettier, etc.), then we could discuss whether that was true using empirical evidence. And we could discuss whether being richer/smarter/prettier/etc. really translated to being better in any significant sense (what makes people “better” or “worse”, anyway?). If American Exceptionalism means “Americans make the best widgets,” well, if there is some way of proving that America makes the best widgets, then I’m all for American Exceptionalism. If American exceptionalism just means “we’re better because we’re American,” then that’s unfounded arrogance.  To the extent that American Exceptionalism is tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny (which depends on in the idea of the superiority of whites and Christians, and is a version of the “white man’s burden” myth), I reject it utterly.

It is possible to find arrogance everywhere, and maybe you do find it more often in elite universities and in “self-regarding metropolitan centers.” But what I would ask is: where are U.S. residents likely to find out about what people around the world think of the U.S.? You certainly could move to a foreign country, as the author of the article did (though living in a foreign country is no cure for arrogance, as colonial occupiers have demonstrated for centuries). Or, you could go to one of the places in America where you can meet people who aren’t from America.  You don’t have to leave America to meet people from around the world. You can learn from a Turk while living in Istanbul, but you can also learn from a Turk living in Berkeley, California while attending university. (One of the sloppy generalizations in the article is the notion that everyone in the U.S. is oblivious to what people in the rest of the world think. There are lots of people living in the U.S. who immigrated from other lands, or whose parents immigrated from other lands. Such people, by virtue of both personal experience and social connections, have a damn good idea of what people outside the US think of people inside the US. I get that the constraints of the article size limit the attention that an author can give to saying “I want to talk about something common in the US, but certainly not universal,” but the generalization is still sloppy: lots of Americans know what the rest of the world thinks of the US.)

Metropolitan centers are known for diversity of population, and this diversity is reflected in political realities. Who voted for Trump and blindness to the outside world? Not metropolitan centers. Metropolitan centers voted for the person who had served as Secretary of State for Barack Obama, who was widely admired outside the U.S. Metropolitan centers voted for the politician who believed in climate change, like the rest of the world believes in climate change. Metropolitan centers also voted for the politician who supported immigration, which reveals an inherent openness to new peoples with different ideas about the U.S. (An aside: to call the metropolitan centers “self-regarding” is to accuse them of arrogance. It’s an unjustified insult and a silly generalization. Where ever you go, some people will hold arrogant and unjustified pride in their homes. But in most places, there are justified grounds for pride. And in some cases—New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and several other major U.S. cities—a certain self-regard is not out of place. The great cities of the U.S. rival the great cities of the rest of the world. Sure, Istanbul has thousands of years of history, and New York only a few centuries, but New York was a world cultural center of power rivaled by only a short list of other cities in the history of the world. In the middle of the twentieth century, New York was quite arguably the greatest city in the world. Washington, D.C. wielded military might unrivaled perhaps in history. Los Angeles and Hollywood influenced people around the world.)

Colleges and universities are also good places to meet people from around the world and to learn how they see the world.  If you go to college or university with an unshakeable belief in the inherent superiority of Americans (or white Christian Americans), well, college and university may not change you.  But such views are hardly common on university campuses (and not surprisingly, the GOP and conservative media often complain about the views that are expressed on U.S. university campuses).  University campuses try to harbor diverse views because an underlying view of research is that diversity of views helps develop debate. Universities almost always have foreign students and often foreign professors.  And again, the voting record clearly demonstrates that college and universities hold views that are more interested in understanding the outside world, and more focused on interacting with people in the outside world as equal partners, rather that as inferiors lacking whatever it is that is supposed to make Americans exceptional.  Is American Exceptionalism espoused by many on U.S. campuses? Well, generally professors and students both vote Democratic far more often than Republican, suggesting that the Republican appeal to American Exceptionalism isn’t generating enthusiasm on campuses. It should be noted that researchers—most professors at universities—are almost always working with scholars around the world, and they are trying to understand the ideas of the people with whom they work. Scholars may focus on their scholarship, but they’re not completely cut off from the rest of the world. Colleges often send students abroad in addition to bringing in students from overseas.

The metropolitan centers and colleges/universities voted for the candidate with the less insular views; they voted in favor of more interaction in the world, and less of an idea of “American Exceptionalism.”  Who did vote for the insular candidate? Who voted for American Exceptionalism? Not the metropolitan areas or colleges/universities.

So, Ms. Hansen, if your concern is for throwing off the American-centric views that disturb you, then metropolitan centers and colleges are the most likely places where someone will be cured of those views, short of going and living abroad. Since the rest of the world probably won’t let 300 million U.S. residents come live for a year or a decade, those colleges and universities and metropolitan centers are the best hope for curing Americans of their self-centered views. In the long run, sure, it would be great to change elementary and secondary education in the U.S. for more awareness of the wider world. But at present, colleges and universities and metropolitan areas are the best hopes for the cure you seek to American blindness. Colleges and universities are good.

Update/Addendum: Another place you can find out what people outside the U.S. think of people inside the U.S. is on the web, even on U.S.-based publications, as with this article written by a Mexican. Truth is, it's easy to learn what people think if you want to learn. But you have to go to places where there are different voices to be heard--like metropolitan centers and institutions of higher learning.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Issues in defining research questions: separating distinct but related questions. Sports example: performance vs. potential

Last night I was trying to write about the difficulty of problem definition in research, and how, in particular, I frequently see research proposal drafts that are looking at a big question and combining what are really distinct research projects. The example I was considering was one that I often see in people researching social problems, when people bring together the three basic questions about addressing a social problem: what is the cause? what is the impact? what can be done about it?  This combination of issues makes perfect sense from the perspective of someone who wants to do something about the problem, because they are not separate issues: understanding causes can help understand impacts, and vice versa, and both can inform possible courses of action to address the problem.  But for a researcher, they don’t combine well. I’m not going to talk about that though. I’m going to talk about a similar issue in sports.

I really enjoy reading sports analysis. As a little kid, I loved baseball cards and books about sports. When I discovered Bill James (1988, I think, the year he published his last Baseball Abstract) I really fell in love with reading sports analysis, and especially discussions of which players are better. I particularly enjoy the way that James thinks about stuff: he’s very careful to separate out distinct issues. I don’t always agree, but…  I follow baseball less now, and football and basketball. I enjoy reading Bill Barnwell, Zach Lowe, Neil Paine, and Chase Stuart, who are all well known writers with analytical approaches that I appreciate. I don’t read all that much sports, but I do read sports pretty regularly—several sports related articles a week. When I’m procrastinating, I read sports on the web. I particularly enjoy reading rankings of players.  It doesn’t much matter to me who is ranked where, I’m interested in the ways that they justify the rankings. In such rankings, I often see a lot of slipping between distinct but related research concerns. 
In his Historical Abstract (2nd edition, I think, but I’m not checking sources), Bill James talks about how player rankings—the search for GOAT—have to find some way to negotiate the two distinct concerns of peak performance vs. career totals. Gale Sayers (4956 rushing yards) and Terrell Davis (7607), for example, are two players who had very high peak performance with injury-shortened careers. How do we compare them to Edgerrin James, whose 12,246 rushing yds almost matches the total combined yardage of Sayers and Davis (12,563). (Sayers, of course, was a great returner, but I don’t want to get distracted evaluating Sayers or Davis or E. James.). Anyway, the two questions of peak performance and career performance are distinct issues that often get combined, because they are both important concerns in trying to decide who the “greatest” was.
A related conflation of concerns in player evaluation is the distinction between potential and performance that I don’t see explicitly discussed as often as the peak vs. career debate. (Admittedly, I’m not out scouring the web for sports.). Performance (i.e. what actually happened on the field) is not the same as potential (i.e., inherent talent, skill, or ability).  Performance and potential are related, of course, but they are not identical (and sometimes I think that analytical and statistical approaches go too far in discounting actual performance to valorize potential, especially in cases of small samples. I think I’ll leave that discussion for another post).
Sometimes potential is what is of interest: in trying to predict the upcoming season, we want to know what the underlying ability is. In trying to evaluate who had the best season last year, performance is of interest, not potential. In trying to evaluate “the best,” however, there is no clear guidance as to whether performance is more important, or potential. Who is the best running back in the league right now? There are different answers for who had the best career (Adrian Peterson), who had the best year last year (Ezekiel Elliott, at least in terms of rushing yards), and who will have the best season this year (probably not Peterson, possibly Elliott, but not if he gets suspended for six games). From the point of view of asking a good research question, it helps to separate out the different issues.
Performance is one of the best indications of potential, so attempts to evaluate potential use actual performance. Potential is not perfectly related to performance, however, because any number of other factors influence performance in addition to potential. Actual outcome on the field is shaped by all the players, not to mention the refs/umps and the crowd and environmental conditions.

Being clear about which of the related issues we want to research allows us to actually do research. If we’re not clear, we just slip from one inconclusive argument to another.
Sometimes—in evaluating the GOAT, for example—you might want to try to find a balance between performance and potential. I would want to, at least, because I think that the GOAT should have ability that manifested in different ways. Other times—in evaluating the Hall of Fame, in my opinion—the question of performance seems paramount: the fact that someone did or did not do well matters, even if it is not an accurate reflection of potential.

Your purposes as a researcher (sports evaluator) affect how you deal with the two disparate dimensions, but recognizing that the two different dimensions are separate is important in keeping from slipping into evaluations based on shifting criteria.