The speaking body

There has always been an oral-communication component in my upper-level business communications classes. I used to justify this to my students this way: In my own professional life, no matter how beautifully clear and researched the documents my clients pay me for are, they still want me to come into their office and explain my work to them. There is no way around it.

Now that AI platforms have made it very easy to generate text for student work, I have another rationale for the oral-communication requirement. It is not only a handy way for students to demonstrate that they know and really understand what they wrote, it might also be the best way.

Knowledge exists in the body and in the pulse of time, three things that come together in the human voice speaking to others. This knowledge blooms through conversation.

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“Time is of the essence.”

This story is from the online news publication “Jolt: The Journal of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater” [in Washington State]:

Starting Monday, June 17, Intercity Transit will cease posting rider alerts on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).  This decision comes in response to changes in the algorithms of these platforms, which prioritize content based on user interest rather than chronological order.  As a result, real-time updates have become ineffective and often cause confusion when delivered late. 

A decade or so ago, both Twitter and Facebook were praised for their utility in disseminating important information regarding urgent situations in real time. Indeed, back then their success in this was matchless when compared to traditional news organizations and municipal and other governmental public-communications arms. These platforms relinquished their salutary roles, though; in other words, they stopped giving a shit about helping people.

Addendum: Into this online-media environment “Jolt News” arrived in 2020. It is a vibrant and intelligent citizen-journalism platform that makes me smile in my heart. Anti-information behemoths are swallowing the old local journalism outlets. Long live the new alternatives. Olympia, Washington is my second hometown. This platform is how I keep up to date when I’m away.

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Balance and scale

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ChatGPT and email

As a university prof, I both teach and, to some extent, accommodate AI platforms in the classroom. This has been a daunting, trying, and humbling experience that requires continual adjustment and correction. But there is no way around it.

The hardest thing for me to adjust to: receiving AI-generated emails from students. The tone of these emails is usually “off”: too solicitous, or formal, or expansive. Sometimes they just seem bizarre. What really startles me, though, is this: I cannot hear a human being saying the words.

I estimate that since puberty I have spent approximately a third of my waking hours reading. I have a very fine ear for reading. And for me, the ground zero of reading is reading correspondence addressed to me. This is more fundamental to me, in terms of human interaction, than conversation.

When I receive an AI-generated email, even when it has been carefully fine-tuned, I see only a disguise, not the person – and I cannot hear a thing. This is profoundly unnerving to me. I need to get over this painful reaction.

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West End murder of crows (2010).

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An old-fashioned take-down

Becca Rothfeld’s book review “Lauren Oyler thinks she is better than you” is a thorough evisceration of Oyler’s book No Judgment. You don’t see many reviews like this these days. Critics that attack books typically go after the author’s political or cultural stance – indeed, often use the occasion of their reviews to promote their own contrasting positions.

Critics of old of course did the same thing, but they supplemented this approach by also writing reviews of the author’s quality of mind – say, of that author’s poor cerebral and compositional hygiene. Rothfeld’s amusing Washington Post piece is of that latter sort.

Addendum: The New York Times review tries to be nicer but damns with faint praise. Both pieces therefore make me relieved I am not Lauren Oyler this week, though they don’t make me think I am better than her.

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Learning but slowly

Apropos the use of AI in academia, a student asked me, “We want to work more quickly in the workplace, but do we really want to LEARN more quickly? Is that even possible?”

To the latter question, I would say yes, it’s possible. I know there are concepts that one can learn in a flash. Not all fields of learning are like this, though. Think of cooking, or learning how to play the saxophone; these activities exist within the flow of time, having their own pace that demands your accommodation. Real understanding here happens by accretion and duration; it doesn’t come to you in a flash (though some insights will).

I’ve quoted this story by Anne Lamott to Psychology students in my technical writing class struggling with literature reviews for their Honours projects:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

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Autofilling the Data Gaps

My macroeconomics professor at The University at Buffalo told our class, at semester’s end, that people in his profession “had a lot to be humble about.” I loved that line and have used it hundreds of times since, to describe his and other professions, too.

I thought of the professor today when reading this recent post in Retraction Watch: No data? No problem! Undisclosed tinkering in Excel behind economics paper.

Last year, a new study on green innovations and patents in 27 countries left one reader slack-jawed. The findings were no surprise. What was baffling was how the authors, two professors of economics in Europe, had pulled off the research in the first place. 

The reader, a PhD student in economics, was working with the same data described in the paper. He knew they were riddled with holes – sometimes big ones: For several countries, observations for some of the variables the study tracked were completely absent. The authors made no mention of how they dealt with this problem. On the contrary, they wrote they had “balanced panel data,” which in economic parlance means a dataset with no gaps.

“I was dumbstruck for a week,” said the student …

The student wrote the article’s coauthor asking for an explanation and found out from him that Excel’s autofill function had “mended the data.” The program “filled in the blanks. If the new numbers turned negative, [the coauthors] replaced them with the last positive value Excel had spit out.” 

Replacing missing observations with substitute values – an operation known in statistics as imputation – is a common but controversial technique in economics that allows certain types of analyses to be carried out on incomplete data. Researchers have established methods for the practice; each comes with its own drawbacks that affect how the results are interpreted. As far as the student knew, Excel’s autofill function was not among these methods, especially not when applied in a haphazard way without clear justification.

But it got worse. [In] several instances … there were no observations to use for the autofill operation. … [The authors] had filled in thousands of empty cells in the dataset – well over one in 10 – including missing values for the study’s outcome variables. 

Interpolating data this way tends to be bad practice, but economists still do it. It’s not “cheating,” though, as long as you explain to your readers that this is what you did. Had the authors done so, however, it would have been unlikely their paper would have been published in the first place.

I have been reading Retraction Watch for years, but literally every week it publishes something that stuns me. There’s a lot of mayhem in academic publishing.

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The work international students must do in B.C.

Several years ago my late Kwantlen colleague Arley McNeney organized a class project in which her students presented research on the challenges international students at our school face. I was embarrassed when I read their report; I had been so clueless, about so much, regarding the lives of my own students. I was particularly alarmed by the report’s findings illustrating how many international students faced continual food insecurity. There were additional widespread problems these students face, including precarious living situations (usually far away from a KPU campus) and abusive work environments.

This week The Tyee published what can be read as an update of the report prepared by Arley’s class: “Cash Cows and Cheap Labour: The Plight of International Students.” One disquieting theme: Students recruited internationally were shocked by how many hours they needed to work outside of school simply to survive in Canada. One study surveyed

1,300 international students at Langara and the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. They found the vast majority of students were working, and many were struggling. Only 28 per cent of surveyed Langara students said they had enough cash to meet their basic needs.

In theory, international students need to show they have the financial means to support themselves for one year in Canada. Since the early 2000s, that figure has been set at tuition, travel costs and $10,000 in cash. The federal government has recently announced that figure will double to $20,635.

But McCartney said the government likely knew for years that the $10,000 threshold was far too little to make ends meet, especially in cities like Vancouver, where the cost of a vacant rental unit stood at $2,373 a month as of last year.

The result was that students, either by plan or by necessity, found jobs. …

“At the end of the day, I think that we all believe students shouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week to pay for their rent, their groceries, their food. I wish that was the reality,” Chirino said. “But when you look at their fees and how much they have to pay, that simply isn’t feasible.”

At least 90% of my international students have jobs, very often more than one job. But it is not rare for me to hear growling stomachs in the classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, our university president, Alan Davis, wrote an open letter to the university community on this topic:

We have done significant work to improve the experience for international students in the past few years, but we also heard what you said [in a recent large survey] and there is more to do….

This won’t be an easy road. The federal and provincial governments are taking a close look at international education and some of the changes they are making or might propose could have a significant impact on KPU. While we’ve been gradually increasing the diversity of our international student population and we’ve seen a softening of international enrolment, the emerging external factors provide additional complexity in forecasting future trends.

Our annual student satisfaction survey repeatedly shows a higher proportion of our international students have more positive views of KPU than domestic students across several important metrics, including supporting student success and feeling part of the community. We have some strong foundations, but we will build on them in a careful and considerate way.

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Leaving Substack …

One of my favourite authors, Talia Lavin, has moved her blog, “The Sword and the Sandwich,” from Substack to the Buttondown platform.

That’s because [Substack] founders stated, in no uncertain terms, that they’re not just OK with, but in principle supportive of, having loads of out-and-out Nazis on their platform. …

I must admit that there’s a fair amount of anger and resentment that comes along with this decision—anger at feckless rich crypto-fascists like Hamish McKenzie of Substack, and his many Silicon Valley peers, who all seem to subscribe to the notion that race-based hatred is just a simple quirk of the marketplace of ideas. …

Being an out-and-out antifascist for a long time, I’ve given up a lot for that cause—my safety, and the safety of my family, and the ability to do things like sign up to vote without fear without worrying I’ll be doxxed, and not receiving ominous packages, and not having accrued half a decade’s worth of psychic damage about my Judaism, my body, my ability, my worth, the value of my life. Now I’ve had to give up a platform I worked for years to build, and dive into uncertain waters. …

But I am … excited about the possibility of navigating these new waters with you and feel a certain flush of pride in having made a difficult and frankly terrifying gamble with my primary source of income, with the idea that no marketplace I belong to ought to include Nazis in it.

Another favourite writer of mine, Lux Alptraum, wrote in a post today that she “is hoping to transition away from Substack.” I asked her why. Her reply:

This has always been a problematic platform for me — even before the Nazi stuff they platformed transphobes — but it was easy and I just told myself I would never charge for the newsletter anyway so it did not matter. But the Nazi stuff… makes me feel even worse and more than that I know a lot of readers don’t want to support the platform so yeah, just getting other options up and running.

[From Jan 3:]

I’m currently in the process of building up the whole archive on my own little website — remember personal websites? — but for now, if you feel icky about supporting Substack, all posts that appear here also appear on my Patreon. They are available for free, but I wouldn’t be mad if you gave me $1 (or more!) a month. When I have a critical mass of people on Patreon I will likely wind down operations here, FYI.

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