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  2. 11

    I gave this the +1 because he’s very convincing but I’m not convinced he’s being punished because he’s a good teacher.

    1. 17

      My 50-millisecond reaction was “he got a 20-month severance, what’s he complaining about?”

      … but then I remembered that he was in academia, which is feudalistic and reputation-driven, and in which something that would be a minor setback in a less dysfunctional industry can actually be career-ending, and read on, and the handling of this whole thing seems unfair and bizarre. Not surprising, because people with a little bit of power can become assholes no matter how learned they are, but unfair.

      I don’t think we’ll ever know why he, individually, got fired. It could be anything. People will find the stupidest reasons not to like people. What’s disgusting to me is that we, as a society, have let genuine research jobs get so rare, and the academic job market so dysfunctional, that even with a 20-month severance, this sort of thing can be career-altering enough that someone’s best course of action would be this particular move. (I tend to have sympathy for whistleblowers, since few people take such steps likely, and usually it comes when other options have been exhausted.) Academic dysfunction (e.g. the terrible job market) has been a known problem for over 20 years and no one has done anything and, yes, the students being taught have also been a casualty: they’ve mostly been delivered crappy teaching because professors have to spend so much time playing political games.

      We’ll probably never know why this particular professor was punished, but what he represents is true in spirit. Focusing on teaching is not only not rewarded, but actively discouraged in many departments.

    2. 6

      For me, this is actually a kind of interesting piece on pedagogy (that would be a tag). I just took a class in the Berkeley Math Department this spring while working full time as an engineer in West Berkeley (it’s a different class, but the professor in the underpopulated lecture photo was, indeed, my professor). I’d tend to agree with the author about how things get taught.

      For people who do find this topic of interest, another piece that did come up some time ago was http://bentilly.blogspot.com/2009/09/teaching-linear-algebra.html

      1. 4

        His Rate My Professors reviews: http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=1835732

        EDIT: Wait. His last name is Coward? As in Professor Coward??? I can hear it now, “Coward, don’t try to be a hero.”

        1. 1

          I demand cookies as a reward for not responding with another person’s name that’s hilarious until you think about how, as a professor, he probably hears that every day of his life. :) Not to berate you or anything, just, …

        2. 6

          Could we add the “culture” tag to this?

          Also, are we sure we want to post outrage articles like this?

          This is currently #1, has 34 points (next highest is the “Python Wats” thread), is arguably just somebody airing out their dirty laundry (however rightfully), and probably affects very few people on this site.

          Instead, though, it’s getting a bunch of sympathetic upvotes. It’s the kind of article that tends to clutter up and drown out other, more useful content.

          1. 20

            The upvotes are a mechanism for people to convey what content they want to see. Talking about upvotes as if your fellow lobste.rs users aren’t the ones who made them is absurd.

            1. 6

              Fair enough–I’ll amend my statement as follows:

              I suspect that the majority of the upvotes are sympathetic in nature.

              I believe that any users of lobste.rs who are upvoting such material are being short-sighted in signalling their acceptance of articles of limited utility, are lessening of the signal/noise ratio on the site, and are exhibiting what I consider poor taste.


              1. 13

                Out of curiosity, what would be your qualifications for something being upvoted?

                The way I see it, there are three main reasons that I upvote (in no particular order):

                1. I find something to be “neat” or interesting, and wish to convey that.
                2. I find something useful, and wish to convey that.
                3. I wish to bring attention to a certain topic so as to further discussions/opinions on that topic.

                The way I read your comment, you wish to axe 1, only upvoting 2 and 3. Is that so?

                1. 7

                  “I have learned something” seems a bit weak, so perhaps “I can apply something from this post” is better, maybe with an exception for curiosity.

                  There’s not much I can apply from this post. No “take away”. Not “actionable”. I’m not much curious about department squabbles at a uni I don’t attend.

                  A post which explores how to best teach math would be much better. I’m at least 10x more interested in what he was doing to teach math than whether hiding performance reviews is a violation of departmental bylaws.

                  1. 2

                    Interesting. I now seem to be in agreement with most of what you say.

                    While a post that explores how to best teach math may be more useful to the entirety lobste.rs, those interested in the politics of the firing of math teachers would most definitely be interested in this post and would likely upvote it not because they can “take away” something, but because they are intrigued by the post itself.

                    In your opinion, should this post should only have gotten upvotes from people who have acquired something actionable from the post, or that it should not have gotten “sympathy” upvotes (if that’s what they are), but only upvotes from those truly interested in the topic?

                    1. 4

                      “sympathy” up votes are pretty shallow. I look at votes as a recommendation or endorsement. This post currently has 5x or even 10x the votes as nearly every other link. Is reading this post more important than reading ten other articles? That seems unlikely, but that’s the signal lobsters is sending.

                      Imagine you have a limited budget of points (say 100) to spend on articles. High point articles cost more points to read. Are you happy with the value of this 50 point article?

                      1. 3

                        It may just be me, but I upvoted this article more because of the interesting discussion on academia than because of the article itself. Which IMHO is a perfectly valid reason to upvote.

                        1. 2

                          Is reading this post more important than reading ten other articles?

                          I don’t think that’s the appropriate interpretation. If we take each upvote as a recommendation, then while this article is much more heavily recommended than anything else on the front page right now, we can’t from that conclude that it’s many times more valuable/interesting/informative/important/etc than any other article—just that if we were going to take a selection of articles to read, this one would certainly be among them. The disproportionately high ranking does mean that if we disagree with its position on the front page, it’s very difficult to displace.

                          In retrospect, I probably should have tagged it “culture"—I didn’t only because the tag description specifies technical communities and culture, which I don’t think this fits. Perhaps we should update the description to be broader.

                          Incidentally, I’m actually very surprised by how many upvotes this article got. There’s a half dozen other things on the front page right now that I think are more interesting. I hit an unexpected nerve with a bunch of people, I guess. =/

                          1. 2

                            You should’ve tagged it with culture, because academia (especially in math!) is a technical community.

                            I hit an unexpected nerve with a bunch of people, I guess. =/

                            You hit a topic where people feel outraged, and likely the best they can do is upvote in hopes that somebody, somewhere, somehow will read the post and do something.

                            This is why outrage porn posting is such an effective karma strategy (and hence why it should be discouraged).

                          2. 1

                            I believe that your idea should be modified, slightly, so as to not cost “points” to read an article, but to upvote an article. In addition to that, one should have a hard and soft limit, to pull random numbers out of a hat how about 5 and 3 respectively. These limits would work per day (or maybe different limits per week, or something per month, etc) where you would aim to keep it within the soft limit, however, if necessary (because maybe awesome things have happened!) go up to the hard limit, but no further (because anything further than that seems a bit much, and one should wait at most 24 hours to re-assess that extra upvote). And one can unvote as well, which won’t count (which means I’m giving myself an infinite window to correct my judgement(s), which more realistically is about 48 hours, probably).

                            I shall, from now on, try to adhere to this system (because I, for one, like it) unless anybody comes along with one I like more.

                      2. 6

                        I think that lots of articles are great, really important, and I want to share them, but they aren’t necessarily relevant to lobsters. As an example, I’m very interested in transportation planning, so I find NYC’s Department of Transportation’s releases on their future plans, and the studies that they’ve run really fascinating, but transportation is totally disjoint from what lobsters should be focusing on.

                        I’d say that this article falls in the same bucket. It’s definitely interesting, and I hope that Berkeley ends up treating this lecturer fairly, and it might even be useful to disseminate this information.

                        With that said, I flagged this as off-topic because it’s not relevant to engineering. So I’d guess that most people on the site are down with all of 1, 2, and 3, with the caveat that it’s related to software or hardware engineering.

                        1. 6

                          Personally, I don’t think lobste.rs is strictly for technology topics—the related fringe of stuff, including related fields in academia, is also relevant. (After all, quite aside from those of us actually working in academia, a large fraction of us have or are pursuing an undergraduate degree, and the quality of undergraduate education directly impacts us and many of our coworkers.) Being too tightly focused weakens the site due to a lack of diversity of content. Obviously, figuring out where to draw the line between too restricted and too broad is very subjective. I think academic mathematics is within our purview (we have the “math” tag, after all), but I’m certainly not going to claim people are wrong for thinking otherwise. Establishing this sort of subjective line across a community is actually something voting systems are relatively good for, so thank you for flagging it! It’s helpful for people submitting articles to have an idea of which topics are starting to stray from what the community wants to focus on.

                          1. 5

                            Software engineering touches pretty much everything in the world, so we could make the argument that a huge number of articles are relevant. For example, we could say that HBR articles about branding are on topic, because many of us work in companies, and for companies that sell things, it’s useful to make sure we’re on brand, especially if we make software that’s customer-facing.

                            The tools that we have right now for establishing what posts we should add are:

                            A. tags
                            B. voting

                            In theory, the tags should help prevent the site from being taken over by something like eternal september, where a totally different group (say, tech recruiters) come and start upvoting techcrunch articles about the latest snapchat for cats. I’d argue that although this post is definitely interesting, we might want to structure the way tagging works to exclude posts like it. I’m not sure that math is in and of itself, is of interest to lobsters. For example, a distributed systems paper (like Calvin) might be posted to lobsters, and if it has math, it might make sense to tag it with math, but the reason for it being relevant might be because it’s it’s about distributed systems, not about math.

                            Would we say that it’s appropriate to add a mathematics paper? I’d argue it’s probably not, unless the applications in software are clear.

                            1. 3

                              Thanks - I wanted to say a lot of that, but couldn’t find the words. I agree with all of that. I personally am interested in mathematics, but, then, I’m also interested in online advertising… I wouldn’t post either here unless they were otherwise relevant.

                            2. 2

                              Being too tightly focused weakens the site due to a lack of diversity of content.

                              [citation needed]

                              I come to lobsters for coherent technological discussion and for polite discourse. We have an entire internet for other topics that’re not tightly focused or curated. This “diversity in topics is important and belongs everywhere” makes a lot less sense given the ease of going to somewhere else.

                              As you add extra things to the core of subjects of a board like this, you tend to dilute the quality of discussion as things get mislabeled or as people who are interested in those non-core things begin to migrate in.

                              The only places where I’ve seen this work well are places like Something Awful or 4chan (and that should tell you how good it is) where you have boards dedicated solely to certain types of topic and grumpy mods to enforce on-topic stuff.

                              1. 4

                                I think the case of Hacker News shows that phenomenon off quite well. At one time the community enforced a relatively strict standard in terms of avoiding politics and general news, and was really focused on tech+business+science discussion. Over time the scope has grown broader and broader to where now it’s basically “anything goes” and you can see the corresponding drop in quality overall. Yeah, I know that’s subjective and hard to quantify, but I’m pretty sure a lot (most?) of the “old timers” would agree with me.

                                At some point a community has to decide what it is and what it’s about. And if you start going away from that, you have to accept that it will soon no longer be the same community.

                          2. 3

                            The Angersock Lobsters Upvote Algorithm version 1, or ALUA v1 (available under the WTFPL):

                            # meta posts  
                            if post.tags.contains? :meta
                                throw flag('spam', 'Meta question not well formed') if post.content.nonsensical?( angersock.sense_eval_visitor )
                                post.upvote! and return
                            # satire and rants need to be held to a standard
                            if post.tags.contains? :satire
                                throw flag('spam', 'Not good satire.') if post.content.unfunny?( angersock.satire_eval_visitor )
                                throw flag('spam', 'Satire is too short') if post.content.length < 5.paragraphs or post.content.length < 1000.words
                            if post.tags.contains? :rant
                                throw flag('spam', 'Not good rant.') if post.content.unfunny?( angersock.rant_eval_visitor )
                                throw flag('spam', 'Rant is too short') if post.content.length < 5.paragraphs or post.content.length < 1000.words
                            # immediate itch scratching
                            if post.content.solves_problem( angersock.get_current_rage_inducing_problems )
                                post.upvote! and return
                            if post.content.has_specific_technical_advice?
                                post.upvote! and return
                            # basic quality control
                            if post.url.known_linkbait_source?
                                throw flag('spam', 'Post is from a garbage source')
                            if !post.content.still_relevant_within?( 2.years )
                                # important! post musn't be news...that'll be elsewhere anyways
                                throw flag('off-topic', 'Post is from a garbage source')
                            if post.content.contains_viral_marketing? or post.content.ends_with_company_plug?
                                throw flag('spam', 'WTF marketing pls go')
                            if post.content.length < 5.paragraphs or post.content.length < 1000.words
                                post.downvote! and return
                            # special-case commenting/upvoting
                            if post.tags.contains? :culture do:     
                                post.upvote! if post.content.involves( [ 'burnout', 'stock', 'equity', 'teaching', 'leadership', 'post-mortem'])
                                if post.content.about( :diversity )
                                    # BETA CODE STILL UNDERGOING TESTING
                                    post.downvote! if post.content.hand_wringing? # done to prevent posts that don't offer paths forward
                                    post.downvote! if post.content.call_for_witchhunt? # done to prevent posts that are just bullying
                                    post.comment( angersock.ask_for_tag( :diversity) ) if Random.rand(10) < 3
                            if post.content.matches_tags post.tags
                                post.comment( suggest_missing_tags( post.content, post.tags) )

                            Note that curating is more what is left out or flagged than what is supported.

                          3. 9

                            I believe that any users of lobste.rs who are upvoting such material are being short-sighted in signalling their acceptance of articles of limited utility

                            relax, it’s just a link site on the internet

                            1. 9

                              It’s not a totally unreasonable concern. I definitely get where angersock is coming from—the endpoint of failing to address submission quality concerns is Reddit, and none of us want that. Obviously I don’t think this submission is of poor quality, or I wouldn’t have submitted it, but the concern is legitimate.

                              1. 8

                                Sorry to post twice in the same subthread, but I thought about it more…

                                I think a lot of Reddit’s real problems have to do with the disrespectful behavior that’s fostered there. Isolated pockets are much better, but since that stuff has always been viewed as a feature from the top, those will always be the exceptions.

                                But it’s also not clear whether there is any medium anywhere which scales to include that many people and doesn’t have that result. If we really view Reddit as an undesirable endpoint, the solution may be to choose to stay small.

                                1. 4

                                  I happen to like Reddit. I find the constant badmouthing of other fora to be the worst aspect of lobste.rs.

                                  1. 14

                                    I believe it happens because some of us view lobste.rs as a refuge from the poor quality content submitted to other sites.

                                    One of the reasons I like this site is that I find I do not need to do much filtering to reach articles of interest to me because nearly all of them are high quality, interesting submissions. I would guess @angersock feels similarly and is attempting to protect the quality bar as they see it.

                                    Of course, we won’t all agree… For example, I upvoted this particular post. Still, I do personally feel it’s worth protecting the overall quality of the site, assuming that can even be done at all.

                                    1. 3

                                      I believe it happens because some of us view lobste.rs as a refuge from the poor quality content submitted to other sites.

                                      Poor quality, obviously, being entirely subjective. The post in question here isn’t really poor quality by many standards. It is detailed, elaborate and rather clear in its intentions.

                                      People disagree with that kind of content they don’t like by downvotes and I don’t really like that. Either you are on a user-curated platform, which means you have to follow the masses somewhat or you are not. There are many publications that curate things for you.

                                      Downvotes should be strictly kept for poor quality content.

                                      1. 2

                                        You are failing to account for the fact that a lot of articles without quality issues are quite off-topic (say, outrage porn like this, or a really great academic writeup on the history of a particular stamp).

                                        The problem with your approach is that it tends to lead to incoherence, and incoherence inevitably leads to a regression to the mean.

                                    2. 4

                                      I have to admit, I enjoy some subreddits. I don’t disclose nearly as much personal stuff there as I do here, but I think that has a lot to do with it being a larger audience - thousands of people likely to skim past, rather than hundreds.

                                  2. 4

                                    Link sites on the internet develop cultures, and Lobsters is young enough that it’s culture is yet unformed. I think it’s a good idea to consider the kind of content we collectively encourage.

                                    I agree with GP’s assessment, and while I have sympathy for the author of the article, I don’t need another place to find outrage porn. I need a source of interesting links.

                                    1. 8

                                      I’m not sure we don’t have a culture yet. I think we have a very strong tradition of talking about what sort of culture we want. :)

                                      (And I think that’s important and good, btw.)

                                      1. 1

                                        Maybe “unformed” was the wrong word. How about “unfixed?”

                                        1. 1

                                          That descriptor makes sense to me, yes.

                              2. 9

                                I would have tagged it with “academia” if we had such a tag (which, incidentally, I think we should). “Culture” is described as “technical communities and culture”, which I don’t think fits this; and while it’s not Lobste.rs typical fare, I thought people might find it relevant (and evidently a significant number do). If “culture” should cover articles like this, we should probably broaden its description.

                                1. 8

                                  “Academia” is definitely the right specific tag if we want to have one, yeah. Do we have a lot of past articles that would reasonably fall in that category? If so, it’s clear-cut that we should.

                                  This particular article could also reasonably be tagged “rant”. :)

                                2. 8

                                  Hi @angersock. I’m totally with you but I think this may be a losing battle in a democratic setting. I saw this happen on HN and now I see it happening on lobste.rs Right now the “noise” is still low compared to the “signal” but probably not for long.

                                  @jcs I’ve wondered if we could try out personally weighted votes. This means that the votes I see when when I log in depend on who has upvoted/downvoted an article and could be totally different from those seen by other folks. So my lobste.rs first page could be very different from some one elses' depending on interests and tastes.

                                  I would initially default to the raw vote (i.e. what is happening now) but as I added people whose tastes I like (or perhaps we could have a learning algorithm match me with others) the front page would (hopefully) contain articles I’m more likely to be interested in and I have less of the noise problem than I had with, say, slashdot and hackernews.


                                  1. 2

                                    I like your idea of a weighted vote, that could be interesting

                                  2. 4

                                    Upvoted for germaneness to the faults of the U.S. educational system. I hadn’t seen the educators’ side of this issue.

                                    1. 2

                                      That’s interesting to hear. What’s the other side of it? What is the larger issue, precisely?

                                    1. 2

                                      I found this brief response interesting, juxtaposing his current denunciation of the university (and invocation of union grievance procedure) with his previous position of what one might call “non-solidarity” with the graduate students' union, denouncing their strike as a distraction from education.